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Federal Agencies Ignore Environmental Health Risks for Millions of Prisoners

Advocates say government agencies consistently ignore environmental health factors when racing to build prisons.

(Photo: Mining Equipment via Shutterstock)

Part of the Series

The US government is considering two sites for a federal prison camp in Letcher County, Kentucky. One site hosted strip mining for years, and the other has been “significantly impacted” by mountain removal mining, which involves blasting off the tops of mountains to expose coal seams.

It’s well known that strip mining pollutes local waterways, and communities near mountaintop removal sites suffer from higher rates of heart disease, and have generally poorer mental and physical health than others in Appalachia. The Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) draft environmental analysis of the project, however, considers several endangered species of bats but says nothing about the potential impacts that the old coal mines could have on the health of the 1,200 humans who will be living inside the prison, according to an analysis by Truthout and the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC).

Human rights and environmental advocates say the BOP should know better, considering that a state prison in Pennsylvania is currently awash in controversy over allegations that pollution from a toxic coal waste dump surrounding the facility is making its prisoners seriously ill. Advocates, however, say state and federal agencies consistently ignore environmental health factors when racing to build prisons.

HRDC director Paul Wright said the federal government has a lengthy history of building prisons on abandoned mines, toxic waste sites and military bases, endangering both prisoners and staff at the facilities. Prisons, he said, are often built on land that no one wants. Landowners see deals with the BOP as a last-ditch attempt to redevelop their property, and members of Congress see them as an opportunity to funnel federal money into their home states.

“The thinking is, the only people we can get to live here are the ones we are bringing here at gun point and keeping here at gun point,” Wright told Truthout.

Environmental Justice Lip Service

In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies to consider the environmental and human health impacts of their actions on low-income communities and communities of color. Since then, advocates say, federal agencies have paid plenty of lip service to “environmental justice” – the idea that environmental policies must incorporate input from those they affect and treat marginalized people fairly – while continuing to permit policies that have allowed hazardous industries to operate almost exclusively in poor communities and disproportionately pollute communities of color.

The prison industry is a perfect example. Prisons are often built near low-income communities like Letcher County, where some see the proposal as an opportunity to fill the economic vacuum left by the coal industry. The HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project reports that, from 1999 to 2011, a “prison initiative” at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resulted in a long list of violations levied against prisons. More recently, whistleblowers and watchdogs have revealed systemic pollution and environmental health problems connected to prison industries. In 2014, environmentalists in Alabama successfully stopped a state prison from dumping sewage in local waterways after years of protest and litigation.

It’s true that prisons can pose a health threat to those who live near them. But what about those who live in them? Prisoners clearly meet the “environmental justice” criteria set forth by President Clinton. In all 50 states, people of color are overrepresented in the prison system, and the vast majority of prisoners are poor, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Nationally, incarceration rates among Black people are five times higher than among whites, and Hispanics and Latinos are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as white people.

The EPA, however, recently admitted to the Prison Ecology Project that prisoners are not considered in its environmental justice policies, because those policies are based on census data that does not include prisoners.

“Ironically, prisoners are frequently counted for the purpose of gerrymandering voting districts,” Wright said in a statement. “So, why are we missing the mark in terms of environmental protections for those forced to live inside toxic prisons, such as facilities built on coal mining sites or waste dumps?”

EPA’s Environmental Justice “Window Dressing”

The EPA issues federal air and water permits, but it is not the only agency involved in constructing and regulating prisons. The EPA does, however, lead an interagency working group on environmental justice that sets standards for the rest of the federal government. On June 15, the EPA released the draft framework of its environmental justice agenda for the next five years, and advocates said the agency has a long way to go.

“At EPA, environmental justice has devolved into aspirational window dressing,” said Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “EPA’s ongoing failure to put some teeth into this program only perpetuates environmental injustice.”

Ruch said that the agency has yet to take promised steps to enable communities to defend themselves from polluting industries, and the vague agenda does little to specially address the EPA’s stated goal of making “a visible difference in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities.”

The EPA is currently taking public comments on its draft agenda.

While environmentalists like Ruch are pushing the EPA to pursue a meaningful environmental justice agenda, activists at the intersection of prison issues and environmental health issues are demanding that the agency include prisoners in its agenda, for the first time since Clinton handed down his executive order 20 years ago.

“It’s encouraging to see the EPA attempting to increase the effectiveness of protecting vulnerable communities that have been overburdened by industrial pollution, but a significant component is missing when impacts on millions of prisoners and their families are ignored,” said Panagioti Tsolkas of the HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project, which submitted comments on the EPA’s draft agenda on July 14.

The BOP, on the other hand, has never considered its own prisoners under the federal environmental justice guidelines for preparing mandatory impact analyses for new facilities and other big projects, according to the HRDC. A BOP spokesman did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout on the matter.

In its environmental analysis for the Letcher County prison camp, the BOP claims that the facility is needed to reduce overcrowding in other regional facilities, and the facility will house prisoners from the region, making it easier for family members to make visits. The HRDC, however, points out that most prisoners – and their families – come from urban areas, not remote rural areas like Letcher County.

The BOP’s analysis, which is required under federal law, lays out three options called “alternatives” for the project: build the prison at the strip mine site, build it at the mountaintop removal site or don’t build the prison in Letcher County at all. If the government took environmental justice seriously, however, it would have to consider alternatives to locking up so many poor people and people of color in the first place – and that’s exactly where prison justice activists and environmentalists are increasingly finding common ground.

“America has chosen the police state solution for a bulk of its ills, and no matter what your issue is, there is a prison or criminal justice intersection,” Wright said.

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