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Prison Ecology Project

Eco-Prisoner Marius Mason is out of Administrative Segregation!

By staff - Fight Toxic Prisons, May 12, 2017

On May 8, Marius Mason was moved out of the Carswell Federal Medical Center’s (FMC) Administrative Unit, into general population. While this is a far cry from freedom, for the first time in nearly seven years, Marius is able to see the sky and feel the grass beneath his feet.

This welcome news comes weeks before the Fight Toxic Prisons convergence, to be held in the city of Denton, Texas, near FMC Carswell. The environmental activists and prison abolitionists organizing the conference have identified Carswell, located on a Fort Worth military base, as a prime example of a “toxic prison” worthy of national attention. Carswell has long been the subject of complaints about general conditions, as well as being of special concern due to its Administrative Unit, which has housed political prisoners and individuals suffering from serious mental illness. Anti-nuclear activist Helen Woodson was held in the facility until her release in 2011, and other political prisoners, including Aafia Siddiqui and Ana Belen Montes, remain there today.

Since Mason’s confinement in the Administrative Unit, advocacy efforts from his community and his lawyer have been ongoing. Advocacy work has included not only efforts to have him moved from the overly restrictive environment of the Unit, but a successful campaign to secure gender-affirming hormone treatment, making him the first known prisoner authorized to begin female-to-male gender transition in federal custody. Also during his time in the Admin Unit, the BOP has adjusted its policies on solitary confinement. Carswell administrators gave no explanation for Marius’ redesignation. Needless to say, friends and supporters believe the move is long overdue.

Shortly after his sentencing in 2010, Marius was moved from FCI Waseca to the highly restrictive administrative unit at FMC Carswell. After litigation, a FOIA request yielded a document indicating that his redesignation was due to his “radicalizing and recruiting other inmates.” No specific information was provided about why an inmate might be placed into the unit, or how Marius might be able to transition out of it. Indeed, more information is available about the BOP’s Communication Management Units (CMUs), created with the stated purpose of monitoring alleged so-called terrorists, than about the administrative unit at Carswell.

For several years, Marius’ lawyer, Moira Meltzer-Cohen, attempted without success to get the BOP to provide a written statement justifying the decision to keep him in the Administrative Unit. According to Meltzer-Cohen, the few written documents about the facility’s Administrative Unit state that it exists in order to coerce compliance with institutional safety. Upon successful behavioral modification, the inmate presumably is to transition back to general population. Marius remained in the administrative unit for years with an almost flawless disciplinary record. The facility’s redesignation of Marius into general population therefore seems to be a belated, but welcome compliance with the BOP’s own stated goals.

We are hopeful that this move may mean better control over his diet and more reliable mail service.

Meltzer-Cohen stated, “We wish Marius a lot of luck in this transition. While we may never know the reason for it, this does draw attention to the fact that the BOP finally seems to be acting in accordance with its own policy on administrative segregation in Mason’s case, after years of avoiding it.”

The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP) sends love to Marius in this move and extends solidarity to all people in administrative segregation as a penalty for their beliefs or mental health conditions which the BOP doesn’t want to deal with. We support the call to immediately close Carswell’s Administrative Unit entirely.

We also call on the BOP to address the long history of abuses in general population which Marius is entering. The Carswell Federal Medical Center has been the subject of more than a decade of scrutiny by groups such as the ACLU, which released an extensive report calling it a Hospital of Horrors.

From Pipelines to Prisons: The intersection of native rights, mass incarceration and environmental justice

By Panagioti Tsolkas and Nicholas Todd - Earth First! Journal, September 30, 2016

Over the past month, two seemingly disparate issues of prisons and pipelines have captured the attention of activists and independent media across the country. On September 9, as a judge ruled to halt construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), prisoners around the country began a work strike coinciding with the anniversary of the famous Attica uprising.  As we write, demonstrations are continuing nationwide to express solidarity with native tribes resisting the DAPL and for prisoners who launched a coordinated nationwide strike against slave labor in the American prison system.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, the spotlight is on the pushers of pipelines and prisons. Despite a void of coverage by mainstream outlets, social media is ablaze with independent articles covering these two topics. Pipeline opponents who’ve been amassing in North Dakota are now also looking south as drilling under the Mississippi River begins and nearly 340,000 gallons of gas spilled in central Alabama from one of the region’s major pipelines; likewise, prisons in at least 11 states all across the country remain on lockdown in response to the strikes and detailed reports of the strike are only now trickling out.

Just as the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, with 25% of the world’s prisoners held in its 5000 detention facilities, it also has the world’s most vast network of energy pipelines, with more than 2.5 million miles of pipe which is reported to suffer hundreds of leaks and ruptures every year.

pipeline_line_map-630x420

Pipelines in the U.S. as of 2012

While battles around indigenous land rights have a long history of overlap with the environmental justice (EJ) movement, there is a developing body of research and activism placing prisoners’ rights in the EJ context as well, since prison populations in every state of the U.S. are populated disproportionately by people of color. Only establishing common ground over the conventional concept of “environmental” angles surrounding these issues offers too shallow of an analysis; deeper solidarity requires understanding the bigger picture: the history of a social ecosystem surrounding broken treaties and toxic prisons alike. Doing so can only increase the effectiveness and long term success of struggles to defend the Earth.

Prisons in the U.S. as of 2015

At first glance, drawing a relationship between struggles surrounding prisons and pipelines may seem a stretch, but 45 years ago, activists were readily making these connections. Organizations like the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Black Panther Party arose and co-existed in a very similar setting. Their bold direct actions inspired the solidarity of many people outside their respective communities as well. One example being activist-attorney William Kunslter, with the National Lawyers Guild, who went from negotiating on the side of the predominately Black prisoners of Attica to representing AIM members after the Wounded Knee stand-off at Pine Ridge. Activists today must know this history and continue to build on this tradition.

Rally at Coleman Prison in Support of Prisoner Strike Amidst Riots and Lockdowns across Florida

By Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons - It's Going Down, September 11, 2016

Activists from across Florida, including GJEP’s own GE Trees campaigner Ruddy Turnstone (who is operating the megaphone in the video below), attended a demonstration Sept. 9, focused on calling attention to the modern-day slavery conditions, rampant abuse and toxic conditions that occur in prisons around the country. The address of FCC Coleman is 846 NE 54th Terrace, in Wildwood, located half-way between Orlando and Tampa.

The event occurred as part of a nationwide strike on Sept. 9, the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York, was initially announced earlier this year by prisoners in various states, including Alabama, Ohio, Virginia, Texas. It is still unknown how many prisons had people participating in the strike, but over 50 events and demonstrations were planned outside prisons in dozens of cities and rural towns across the U.S.

Riots, work refusal and administrative lockdowns of entire facilities in Florida have already been reported. Other state and federal facilities have reported similar situations around the country.

The Coleman prison complex houses over 7,000 prisoners and is home to the largest prison factory in the entire country, primarily producing material goods such as furniture for government agencies nationwide.

Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, has over $34 million in contract obligation coming out of Bureau of Prison (BOP) facilities in Florida. This is three times higher than any other state in the country.

These workers are subjected to slave conditions based on the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, which exempts prisoners of protection from slavery.

Over the past 10 years, UNICOR facilities have repeatedly been cited for unsafe working conditions and environmental hazards across the nation.

Additionally, FCC Coleman is surrounded by an industrial waste land of rock mines and their water storage pits, which have been known tocontaminate regional water supplies in other areas of the state. Tainted water is a common problem in prisons around the country as well.

“Prisons all over the country are coupled with environmentally hazardous land uses that threaten the health of prisoners and local ecosystems,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, an organizer with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons. “There is no way to justify forcing people to live in these conditions.”

The event at Coleman is being organized by the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Gainesville branch of the IWW labor union.

The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons aims to develop ties between the environmental movement and the movement against mass incarceration.

The IWW is the only labor union in the country which actively accepts prisoners as members.

Why Environmentalists Should Stand with Prisoners on September 9th

By Panagioti - Earth First! Newswire, September 7, 2016

September 9th is the 45th anniversary of the Attica Uprising in New York, where national attention was drawn to the problem of prisons in this country. This year there will public demonstrations in support of prisoners who have a called for a coordinated national work strike in response to extreme abuses they face, including toxic environments, discrimination, censorship, and literal slavery based on the 13th Amendment’s exemption of prisoners.

Prisoner-led groups like the Free Alabama Movement and the Free Ohio Movement have issued calls for “No School, No Work, No Shopping” on September 9, both to disrupt business as usual for the day and to encourage students and workers to participate in solidarity events.

Below is a listing of over 40 events being planned around the country.

The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP) is calling for action in solidarity with the IWW Union’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and other prisoner-led groups in planning activities around Sept 9th.

As I have expounded on in a series of recent articles published over the Earth First! Newswire, prisons all over the country are coupled with environmentally hazardous land uses that threaten prisoners’ health and surrounding ecosystems. (Check out this map for a visual representation of the chronic prison pollution problem.)

At federal prisons, for example, UNICOR factories have been cited for unsafe working conditions and environmental hazards across the nation. For this reason, FTP is planning a demo at the Coleman prison complex, where over 7,000 people are locked up and subjected to slavery at the largest federal prison factory in the US.

In another prison/ecology example, the federal Bureau of Prisons is proposing to build a new maximum-security prison and slave factory on top of a former strip mine site in the coalfields of Letcher County, Kentucky. Any federal prisoner could, at any time, find themselves transferred to this prison, subjected to the health risks associated with a site where the air, water and soil are polluted by decades of coal mining and processing, which is still ongoing in the surrounding mountains.

Along with putting prisoners on a toxic site, that prison would also impact local people who live nearby, turning their community into a prison town. Construction alone will waste $444 million of federal tax dollars which could be used to address the crushing poverty that so often forces people into prisons in the first place.

The proposed site also sits a mile from a rare pocket of eastern old-growth forest that is home to dozens of Appalachian plant and animal species listed as threatened or endangered.

For more information on Sept 9th, Letcher County and other related issues, visit FightToxicPrisons.org

Also, for additional info on the topic of toxic prison slavery, check out these recent writings of Texas prisoner organizer Malik Washington.

Rally to End Toxic Prison Slavery in Solidarity with September 9 Nationwide Prison Strike

By staff - The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, August 11, 2016

Sept 9th is the 45th anniversary of the Attica Uprising in New York, where national attention was drawn to the problem of prisons in this country. This year there will public demonstrations in support of prisoners who have a called for a coordinated national work strike in response to extreme abuses they face, including toxic environments, discrimination and literal slavery based on the 13th Amendment which wrote prison slave labor into the U.S. Constitution.

The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP) is calling for action in solidarity with the IWW Union’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and other prisoner-led groups in planning activities around Sept 9th.

We are spreading the word to our prisoner contacts to invite friends and family on the outside to participate in these necessary efforts to address the violations of civil rights and environmental justice that still occur behind bars.

The primary FTP events will occur on Sept 10th at 10am in front of the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) of Coleman, located at 846 NE 54th Terrace, Wildwood, Florida 34785. 

This location is the largest prison factory in the entire country, producing material goods for government agencies nationwide. Much of the very furniture which accommodates the offices of the bureaucrats that we live under is made by prison slaves at this facility.

Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, has over $34 million in contract obligation coming out of Bureau of Prison (BOP) facilities in Florida. This is three times higher than any other state in the country.

In addition, this prison is also home to one of the most famous political prisoners in the world, Native American activist and warrior, Leonard Peltier, who has been incarcerated over 40 years for his participation in the 1973 stand-off at the Pine Ridge Reservation and the liberation struggle of his people who experienced genocide and witnessed ecocide at the hands of the government who now holds him prisoner.

Also, it’s no coincidence that FCC Coleman is surrounded by a vast wasteland of rock mining operations, an industrial activity with a record of creating giant toxic ponds across Florida. Prisons all over the country are coupled with environmentally hazardous land uses that threaten prisoner’s health.

As another example of this, the federal Bureau of Prisons is now proposing to build a new maximum-security prison and slave factory on top of a former strip mine site in the coalfields of Letcher County, Kentucky. Any federal prisoner could at any time find themselves transferred to this prison, subjected to the health risks associated with a site where the air, water and soil are polluted by decades of coal mining and processing, which is still ongoing in the surrounding mountains.

Along with putting prisoners on a toxic site, the prison would also impact local people who live nearby, turning their community into a prison town. Construction alone will waste $444 million of federal tax dollars which could be used to address the crushing poverty that so often forces people into prisons in the first place.

The proposed site also sits a mile from a rare pocket of eastern old-growth forest that is home to dozens of Appalachian plant and animal species listed as threatened or endangered.

We feel that the existence of this industrialized, slavery-based system of mass incarceration stands as a primary obstacle to universal goals of freedom and harmony with the earth. Its continued existence is among the ultimate symbols of injustice in this country.

Stop Prison Slavery!
No New Toxic Prisons!
End Mass Incarceration!
Defend the Earth!
Free All Political Prisoners!

Welcome to Appalachia’s Gulag Archipelago

By Skyler Simmons - Earth First! Journal, June 2, 2016

Exile in the Mountains

It is hard to imagine the hollers and hills of southern Appalachia ever being a place of punishment. With its lush coves filled with ginseng, ramps, towering oaks, and tulip poplars. Its abundant springs, creeks and rivers teaming with trout, crawdads, and hellbenders. The thousands of family farms and backyard gardens providing sustenance, health, and independence. For most of us lucky enough to call this place home, it is pretty much paradise.

The residents of the gated community of Wallens Ridge, however, would beg to differ. Wallens Ridge is a supermax prison in the economically depressed coalfields of southwest Virginia. The facility, completed in 1999, was sold to this struggling community as an economic boon for a region where coal jobs were quickly disappearing.

Shortly after its opening, Wallens Ridge received a fresh shipment of bodies to fill up its cells, not to mention the state coffers. These bodies were 109 men from a private prison run by the security firm Wackenhut in New Mexico. Sick of the inhumane conditions, torture, and violence endemic in prisons, up to 290 prisoners rioted, destroying property, setting fires in four housing units and causing massive damage in August 1999. In the melee, one prison guard was killed.

The state’s response was swift. In the words of New Mexico Corrections Secretary Rob Perry, “The only thing you can do is act with an iron fist, and that’s what we’re going to do.” Another prison official commented, “A lot of people say they should be sent to a barge or an island, this is the closest thing we’ve got to it.”

It turns out that Wallens Ridge was the perfect island of exile that prison officials desired for these rebellious inmates. Shipped nearly 2,000 miles away from New Mexico, they were subject to another form of torture, isolation from family and friends who could not afford to travel across the county for visits. In addition, an overwhelmingly rural, white prison guard staff was sure to deal with the predominately black and brown prisoners ruthlessly. And that they did.

Upon arrival at Wallens Ridge, the New Mexico inmates were subject to vicious beatings and electroshocks with stun guns, all while the guards shouted racist slurs. According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch, inmate Hector Torres was repeatedly asked if he was, “one of the corrections officer-stabbing Mexicans.” Each time he said “No”, the guards shocked him with a stun gun. Remarking on the conditions at the prison, an attorney representing some of the New Mexico inmates in a civil right lawsuit said, “The knowing and deliberate nature of it is really startling… It was as close to a concentration camp or an experience of slavery as anyone would expect to come in this country.”

Wallens Ridge is not unique. An identical supermax prison called Red Onion was built in 1998 in Pound, VA on mine land donated by Pittston Coal Company about 20 miles away. Noted for having the highest rate of solitary confinement of any prison in Virginia, a 1999 Human Right Watch report found that at Red Onion, “racism, excessive violence and inhumane conditions reign inside.” Many inmates, such as New Afrikan Black Panther Party member Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, say they were sent to this supermax prison, not for their crimes on the outside, but as punishment for speaking out against abuse on the inside.

Even with the importing of out of state prisoners and a “tough on crime” attitude, a year after Wallens Ridge and Red Onion were built, the prisons sat only half full. So what did the Virginia legislature do? They created the aptly, if not draconian, named Virginia Exile Program which included mandatory 5 year sentences in a supermax prison for persons convicted of possession of a gun and cocaine, or any felon in possession of a gun. Sure enough, the prisons filled up. As a matter of fact it was so successful that the prisons are now horribly overcrowded.

Incarceration, Justice and the Planet

By Panagioti Tsolkas - Earth First! Journal, May 5, 2016

Author’s Note: This is a follow-up to another recent article entitled “What Does It Look Like to Be An Environmentalists in Prison” both of which are aimed at generating interest in the upcoming Convergence Against Toxic Prisons June 11- 13, 2016 in D.C.

Prisons inspire little in terms of natural wonder. It might be a weed rises through a crack and blooms for a moment. It might be a prisoner notices. But prisoners, one could assume, must have little concern for the flowers or for otherwise pressing environmental issues. With all the social quandaries present in their lives—walls of solitude, the loss of basic human rights—pollution, climate change and healthy ecosystems must seem so distantly important: an issue for the free. In actuality, prisoners are on the frontlines of the environmental movement, one which intersects with social justice.

Prisoner Jonathan Jones-Thomas found himself unexpectedly in the middle of a scandal exposing massive sewage spills into Washington State’s Skykomish River by the Monroe Correctional Complex. Prisoner Bryant Arroyo ended up rallying hundreds of prisoners to join environmental groups on the outside in fighting plans for a coal gasification plant next to where he was confined. Prisoner Robert Gamez chose to speak out in the midst of an unfolding environmental justice disaster in the Arizona desert, where military waste, Superfund sites and proposed toxic copper mine waste injections ringed the solitary confinement cell he was forced to call home.

And they weren’t alone. When the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), a prisoner-led advocacy group with 25 years under its belt, announced that they were starting a “prison ecology project,” letters began rolling in from incarcerated people around the country. These prisoners were witnessing the sort of conditions that many Americans who’d fall into the category of environmentalists don’t expect to hear about in their own country: factory labor far below minimum wage and no safety gear; black mold infestations, contaminated water, hazardous waste, and sewage overflows; deadly risks of floods, extreme heat; and a whole host of illnesses related to living in overcrowded toxic facilities.

Regulatory Black Holes

According to HRDC’s director Paul Wright, a former Washington State prisoner himself, many prisons actually do operate more like maquiladora sweatshops south of the U.S. border, where both labor standards and environmental regulations take a back seat to other interests.

Wright is not a stranger to the border. Though he grew up in Lake Worth, Florida, his mother’s side of the family is from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Wright was arrested at age 21 and sentences to 17 years, stemming from a gun fight which resulted from a murder charge, while stationed in the Seattle area during a stint in the military. Prior to that he had spent summers visiting relatives in Mexico, and lived there for a period in his youth.

He is also quite familiar with prison factory conditions. As a prisoner, he co-founded the magazine Prison Legal News (PLN) in 1990 which made what he calls “prison slave labor” one of its central themes, seeking to expose corporate contractors who took advantage of the nominal wages and blind eye to labor conditions. Wright still pays attention to injustice stemming from prison industries, but he has also turned his eye to what he sees as another problematic, and underexplored, aspect of prison.

“There are serious environmental impacts happening there, out of sight from the general public, similar to the case with sweatshops the behind border wall,” Wright says. In the case of prisons, operations occur literally behind tightly closed and well-armored doors. “They’re like black holes of government regulation.”

But there are some key distinctions between prisons and sweatshops. Namely, in sweatshops the workers tend to go to some form of their own home at the end of the day. But prisons operate as full time warehouses for people, often piled in by the thousands. That in itself, he says, has serious environmental implications.

The U.S. maintains a massive prison system—world’s largest, in fact. The political value of tough-on-crime rhetoric and legislation that drove the U.S. prison population to the beat out every other country on the planet was often central to political campaign platforms in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A bloated prison system became accepted as the norm, and on top of that, its growth was accompanied by an increasingly disproportionate representation of Black, Latino and Indigenous people, predominately from low-income communities. The most recent demographic statistics available show this to be the case, not only on a national level, but in each and every state as well.

Today, the nation is four decades into the era of mass incarceration, where the prison population jumped 700 percent since the 1960s. Perhaps it’s high time we start asking: What are the environmental impacts of this racialized practice of justice that has been so extreme as to earn the moniker of “The New Jim Crow”?

In Wright’s opinion, the answers could prove as critical to the future of the environmental movement as carbon emissions and rising sea levels.

Mass Incarceration vs. Rural Appalachia

By Panagioti Tsolkas - Earth Island Journal, August 24, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Feds want to build a maximum-security prison on top of a former mountaintop removal mining site in eastern Kentucky

For all practical purposes the [Cumberland Plateau] has long constituted a colonial appendage of the industrial East and Middle West, rather than an integral part of the nation generally. The decades of exploitation have in large measure drained the region.

Harry M. Caudill, author, historian, lawyer, legislator, and environmentalist from Letcher County, in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky (May 3, 1922 – November 29, 1990)

The United States Bureau of Prisons is trying to build a new, massive maximum-security prison in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky — and there’s a growing movement to stop it.

The prison industry in the US has grown in leaps and bounds in the past 20 years— a new prison was built at an average rate of one every two weeks in the ’90s, almost entirely in rural communities. As of 2002, there were already more prisoners in this country than farmers. The industry seems like an unstoppable machine, plowing forward at breakneck speed on the path that made the world’s largest prison population.

Today, about 716 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison. Prisoners in nations across the world average at 155 per 100,000 people. And in the US, Southern states rule the chart. Viewing these states as countries themselves, Kentucky ranks at lucky number seven.

“Sounds terrible…” you may be thinking, “But what does it have to do with the environment?”

Well, this seemingly impenetrable multi-billion dollar bi-partisan government-driven industry does have a weak point: it’s a well-verified ecological mess. For a 10-year period of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Prison Initiative, prison after prison that the EPA’s inspected in the Mid-Atlantic region was plagued with violations. Violations included air and water pollution, inadequate hazardous waste management and failing spill control prevention for toxic materials.

From the initial breaking ground on construction in rural and wild places to the inevitable sewage problem from operating chronically over-populated facilities — running a prison is dirty business. And when you factor in the plethora of environmental justice issues facing the prisoners, disproportionately low-income and people of color, it becomes an outright nightmare.