You are here

Prison Ecology Project

Frackville Prison’s Systemic Water Crisis

By Bryant Arroyo - Earth First! Journal, November 5, 2017

On September 19, 21, 24 and 27, 2017, we prisoners at Pennsylvania’s SCI-Frackville facility experienced four incidences with respect to the crisis of drinking toxic water. While this was not the first indication of chronic water problems at the prison, it seemed an indication that things were going from bad to worse. This round of tainted water was coupled with bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, sore throats, and dizziness by an overwhelming majority of the prisoner population exposed to this contamination. This cannot be construed as an isolated incident.

The SCI-Frackville staff passed out bottled spring water after the inmate population had been subjected to drinking the toxic contaminated water for hours without ever being notified via intercom or by memo to refrain from consuming the tap water. This is as insidious, as it gets!

SCI-Frackville’s administration, is acutely aware of the toxic water contamination crisis and have adopted an in-house patterned practice of intentionally failing to notify the inmate population via announcements and or by posting memos to refrain from tap water, until prisoners discover it for themselves through the above-mentioned health effects.

In general, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) knows it has a water crisis on it hands. The top agencies like the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and EPA know about this open-secret and have conspired to deliberately ignore most, if not all, of the prisoners’ official complaints. DEP has received four drinking water violations from the EPA. But the underlying problem is money, money, and more money.

Earlier this year, federal officials warned DEP that it lacked the staffing and resources to enforce safe drinking water standards. That could be grounds for taking away their role as the primary regulator of water standards, and would cost the state millions of dollars in federal funding.

In a letter dated December 30, 2016, EPA Water Protection Division Director Jon Capacasa stated, “Pennsylvania’s drinking water program failed to meet the federal requirement for onsite review of of water system operations and maintenance capability, also known as a sanitary survey.” He added, “Not completing sanitary survey inspections in a timely manner can have serious public health implications.”

One example in the City of Pittsburgh led to the closure of nearly two dozen schools and a boil-water order for 100,000 people. State environmental regulators had discovered low chlorine levels, after testing the city’s water as part of an ongoing investigation into its water treatment system. The city has also been having issues with elevated lead levels. The EPA also told DEP that the department’s lack of staff has caused the number of unaddressed Safe Drinking Water Act violations to go from 4,298 to 7,922, almost doubling in the past five years.

This leaves us with 43 inspectors employed, but, to meet the EPA mandates, we need at the least 85 full-time inspectors. That means Pennsylvania inspectors have double the workload, and this has resulted in some systems not being inspected. Logically, the larger systems get routine inspections, and systems that have chronic problems get inspected, but smaller and rural system like ours may not be because we are the minority that society doesn’t care about. Persona non grata!

To top it off, Frackville is in Schuylkill County, near a cancer cluster of the rare disease known as Polycythemia Vera (PV). While there is not definitive research on PV, it is believed to be environmental in origin and could be water borne. There’s no telling how many of us may have contracted the mysterious disease caused by drinking this toxic-contaminated water for years without being medically diagnosed and treated for this disease.

The DOC refuses to test the inmate population, in spite of the on-going water crisis. What would happen, if the inmate population would discover that they have contracted the disease PV?! Obviously, this wouldn’t be economically feasible for the DOC medical department to pay the cost to treat all inmates who have been discovered to have ill-gotten the water borne disease.

Many Pennsylvania tax-payers would be surprised to know that our infrastructure is older than Flint, Michigan’s toxic water crisis. Something is very wrong in our own backyard and the legislative body wants to keep a tight lid on it. But how long can this secret be contained before we experience an outbreak of the worst kind.

Silence, no more, it is time to speak. I could not stress the sense of urgency enough. We need to take action by notifying our Pennsylvania State Legislatures and make them accountable to the tax-paying citizens and highlight the necessary attention about Pennsylvania’s water crisis to assist those of us who are cornered and forced to drink toxic, contaminated water across the State Prisons.

If you want to obtain a goal you’ve never obtained, you have to transcend by doing something you’ve never done before. Let’s not procrastinate, unify in solidarity, take action before further contamination becomes inevitable. There’s no logic to action afterwards, if we could have avoided the unnecessary catastrophe, in the first place.

Let’s govern ourselves in the right direction by contacting and filing complaints to our legislative body, DEP, EPA, and their higher-ups, etc. In the mountains of rejection we have faced from these agencies as prisoners, your action could be our yes; our affirmation that, though we may be buried in these walls, we are still alive.

Kite Line: Appalachian Prison Resistance

By Kite Line - It's Going Down, November 3, 2017

Listen and Download Here

This week, we speak with Lill, a resident of Whitesburg, Kentucky. Whitesburg is located in Letcher County the proposed home to a new federal prison to be built on a mountaintop removal site. We have previously covered the strong local organizing in Letcher County that had helped put a stop to this toxic proposal. In light of recent efforts by the Bureau of Prisons to put the prison back on the table, we wanted to go in depth with a local organizer to help us understand the current situation and how others can support the struggle there.

Paperwrenching Prisons and Pipelines

By Panagioti - Earth First! Journal, October 28, 2017

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If your the type who likes to cut to the chase, here it goes: There are two open comment periods for Environmental Impacts Statements (EIS) that you should know about. One for the Sabal Trail Pipeline and another for the Letcher County federal prison. So take a few minutes to submit a comment ASAP using those links embedded up there. For those who prefer some background and deeper analysis, read on…

——————————————————-

Last year I co-authored “From Prisons to Pipelines” with a former-prisoner and Lakota friend from the Pine Ridge Reservation. We were moved to write by the #NoDAPL and #PrisonStrike grassroots organizing efforts that were sweeping the nation, particularly in ways that hit close to home for us.

Since that was published, a prison in Appalachian East Kentucky and a pipeline through the springlands of North Florida both became hotspots on the unofficial map of eco-resistance. Right now, there are opportunities in both of these efforts to significantly broaden the base of support for these two fights and build the long-term foundation for effective resistance.

“Paperwrenching” an EIS approval is the one of the most effective strategies for securing environmental victories, and it is essential groundwork for campaigns that escalate to direct action (especially for folks who might try to use a necessity defense in court following an action, and want to show documentation of their efforts prior to facing criminal charges).

The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons goes International!

By FightToxicPrisons.org - Earth First! Newswire, September 16, 2017

We’re Hitting the Road with the U.K. “End Toxic Prisons” Tour. Check out dates and details below.

This Autumn, the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons will be touring the UK with Community Action on Prison Expansion.

All over the world prisons are toxic environments causing social and ecological harm. Folks from the US have been organizing resistance at the intersection of mass incarceration and the environment, successfully delaying the only current Federal prison construction for over 2 years!

Through grassroots organizing, advocacy and direct action they have been challenging the prison system which is putting prisoners at risk of dangerous environmental conditions, as well as impacting surrounding communities and ecosystems by their construction and operation. Learn about their strategy and tactics, as well as broader struggles of prison abolition, anti-racism, and environmental justice.

Information will then be shared about resistance to the six new mega-prisons in England and Wales, which themselves are proposed for toxic sites, including radiological contamination and asbestos pollution, as well as habitat destruction at every site. Learn how you can get involved!

Prisoners and Climate Injustice

By Natalia Cardona - 350.Org, August 8, 2017

Recent headlines are full of dire warnings about heat-related deaths. Just the other day a headline in the Washington Post stated that a third of the world’s people already face deadly heat waves. And it could be nearly three-quarters by 2100.

Recently I came across disturbing footage from a St. Louis jail showing inmates without air conditioning calling for help from inside the stiflingly hot facility. This is not the first time these type of headlines have showed up in the news this summer.

In June of this year, deadly heat waves in the Southwestern United States also led to prisoners facing inhumane conditions due to extreme heat. In Arizona, while the weather channel warned that locals should stay indoors and temperatures climbed upwards of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, 380 prisoners were left living in tents in unbearable heat.

The impacts of climate change add to the layers of injustice prisoners already face. The U.S. holds the largest number of prisoners per capita in the world. Since the 1970’s the U.S. has seen a 700% increase in the growth of prisons. Prisons are already at the frontline of injustice, because of the criminalization of people of color through failed policies like the “war on drugs”. Not only that, holding large numbers of people in enclosed facilities leads to health hazards and human rights violations. Prisons and prisoners also find themselves on the frontlines of environmental injustice. The toxic impact of prisons extends far beyond any individual prison.

Climate Refugees in Toxic Immigrant Jails Are Victims of Environmental Racism

By Candice Bernd - Truthout, July 30, 2017

This story is the fourth piece in "America's Toxic Prisons," an investigative, collaborative series between Truthout and Earth Island Journal. This series dives deeply into the intersection between mass incarceration and environmental justice.

In April, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, again made headlines after more than 100 immigrant detainees launched a hunger strike to protest the conditions inside the for-profit immigration jail.

The demands reflected many of the concerns originally raised by detainees when they went on strike in 2014: abuse from guards, maggoty food, inadequate access to medical care and exorbitant commissary prices, to name a few. The detainees were also protesting the fact that they were running the prison's basic services for wages of just $1 a day, some reportedly receiving only a bag of chips in exchange for waxing the prison's floors.

Conditions at the immigration jail have drawn in local climate activists and other allies, who, in 2015, blockaded three exits where buses and vans usually carry out detainees for deportation. The activists' interest in the jail is not only grounded in concerns about basic human rights -- it's also about environmental justice.

The 1,500-bed immigration jail, operated by the private prison giant GEO Group, sits adjacent to a federal Superfund cleanup site where a coal gasification plant leeched toxic sludge into the soil for over three decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took over the site in the early 1990s as part of its Superfund cleanup of the tar pits, which included monitoring groundwater wells, and stockpiling and capping contaminated soils, according to the News Tribune, Tacoma's main newspaper. Today, the site is still dotted with drainage ditches, retention ponds and a capped waste pile.

The site is just one of several distinct Superfund cleanup sites in the industrial district known as the "Tideflats," encompassing the city's port and multiple railroad facilities. Another cleanup site in the Tideflats is located around the former ASARCO copper smelter, which, according to the News Tribune, emitted lead and arsenic from its nearly 600-foot-tall smokestack for decades, contaminating the area's water, sediments and upland areas in the process.

The area is so polluted that the city designated it unfit for residents -- except, that is, for Northwest's immigrant detainees. Eager to approve the jail, a Tacoma councilman, aided by a city attorney, found a useful loophole to keep it from being built on the city's "prime port property," by determining that it didn't meet the state's definition of an "essential public facility." This allowed developers to get around local zoning laws, according to the News Tribune.

On top of that, the Tideflats district is vulnerable to an array of disasters, both natural and human-caused, with everything from benzene-filled underground storage tanks to oil-filled "bomb train" cars at risk of exploding. Even the ground beneath the jail is made of "fill-material that is likely to liquefy in the event of an earthquake," according to the Seattle Globalist. The sediment there also shows evidence that "volcanic lahars have flowed through the area during past eruptions of Mount Rainier." To make matters even worse, in the event of a tsunami, the prison would fill with as much as two meters of water in less than eight minutes, according to the Globalist.

Wendy Pantoja Castillo, a naturalized US citizen from Mexico, has been campaigning on behalf of detainees at the Northwest Detention Center, including publicly protesting the jail's conditions and visiting detainees there for the past several years. She described detainees' exposure to extremely polluted air and soil in the area, and said she has worked to organize "toxic tours" of the Tideflats district with other local environmental activists.

"Many of the detainees are reporting they have headaches at night, especially. At night, the air is a little heavier, and it's more dirty," Pantoja Castillo said. "It smells really bad, and this is in all the city, but it's really close to the detention center, and at night people say ... they are feeling dizzy."

No environmental study on air quality and impacts has been conducted in the area, which is something Castillo is pushing to change. She and other organizers are working to pressure the city and state Department of Ecology for air monitoring in the district.

Moreover, the water in the area is known to have been contaminated with lead and arsenic from the ASARCO copper smelter, which Pantoja Castillo suspects could be affecting the detainees there. "Many of [the detainees] are reporting that the water is different ... so we don't know about the water quality," Pantoja Castillo says.

The jail underwent both a federal and state-level environmental assessment in 2001, but according to the News Tribune, the review process for the jail was unusual in many aspects, including that the federal and state reviews were not coordinated, that the state determination only assessed one site alternative in play and that the final federal review did not include a required "preferred site alternative" at all. An earlier draft of the federal Environmental Impact Statement identified an alternative site as preferential due to the risks posed by the hazardous waste stored at the original site and its location along the tar pits Superfund cleanup. Subsequent drafts, however, identified the original site as suitable.

Years later, Pantoja Castillo says the city is still pushing its own agenda over the well-being of the detainees. "The city is doing, to be honest, not really anything in this situation because they want to be pushing LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas]," she said.

Puget Sound Energy (PSE) has proposed a massive, 18-story, 8-million-gallon LNG plant at the Port of Tacoma that would liquefy fracked gas and distribute the product on ships and on tanker trucks. The plant has faced opposition from environmental activists concerned that an accident could be catastrophic to the neighborhoods within three miles of the site -- and the even-closer prisoners at the Northwest Detention Center who would have to "shelter in place" if there is an accident. Most prisoners in the US are almost never actually evacuated during disasters.

PSE's own figures show the plant would release 39.6 tons of air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulates, as well as 20,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. These human and environmental risks are why six protesters chained themselves to construction equipment in May and currently face misdemeanor charges.

Opposition has also come from the Puyallup Tribe, who are native to the banks of Commencement Bay and hold treaty rights within the Tideflats area. The city has solicited the tribe's input as it works to develop a subarea plan to review zoning and land-use rules in the area. Additionally, the city is currently working toward interim regulations on industrial uses in the Tideflats as it conducts its multi-year subarea review.

Following up on the FTP 2017 Convergence

By staff - The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, June 29, 2017

[The following letter was sent to all who registered for the 2017 FTP Convergence, but we felt there was pertinent info in here for the rest of you as well. Have a look, take some action, write some prisoners to tell them about it, and pass it on.]

Greetings Toxic Prison Fighters,

Earlier this month we held our second annual national convergence, bringing together environmental activists with the community of people involved in prisoner advocacy and prison abolition. We also addressed issues which surround this intersection related to labor, immigration, race, gender, sexuality and economics.

For those who were able to support the convergence with your attendance and/or donations, we offer our utmost appreciation. It was a groundbreaking and life-changing event, and it couldn’t have been possible without everyone’s contributions.

First off, here’s a link to a PDF of the convergence program, in case you did not get a physical copy to take home (or were not able to make it, but were curious about the schedule.)

This email aims to keep you plugged in  and engaged. Please use it as a guide to taking action and building this movement. Then pass it along to others who may also see the value in it.

In the coming weeks we will be releasing another series of audio recordings from panels and workshops which occurred over the convergence weekend (as we did last year.). Keep an eye out for that.

Throughout the weekend, we were also able to open lines of communication with prisoners who are still locked up, through direct call-ins with them, letters written to be shared, pre-recorded messages, and calls from support people who relayed messages on behalf of their friends or family.

It is out hope that this will not be a one-time correspondence or a one-way line of communication. To that end, we are providing ways to contact those who joined us in some way from behind the bars. You will find this list at the end of the email. We ask that you reach out to at least one of the individuals to let them know they are not alone, they are not forgotten. Unless you yourself have been inside, you have no idea how much a letter can mean.

But the one thing that may even be better than a letter is seeing a crowd of people gathered in front of the prison raising a ruckus, declaring their love and support for those locked inside. For those who were able to stay till Monday June 5th, you got to experience this for yourself. And we want to keep the pressure on to #CloseCarswell. Our primary demand is the immediate closure of the extremely repressive and isolated Administrative Unit. Make a call today to the Department of Justice and tell them there is no reason to keep this unit open: Department of Justice Comment Line: 202-353-1555. DOJ Main Switchboard: 202-514-2000.

In other news, since the FTP Convergence, we have received some major news on the Letcher County, KY fight against a federal prison on a former coal mine site. Two weeks ago the Department of Justice, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, set in stone that they do not have a need for the new prisonand cannot justify $444 million to build it. While members of Congress could attempt to force it’s construction anyway—as Hal Rogers has done—we are in a much stronger position to fight and win than we were last month. Let’s keep the pressure on!

Start by sending U.S. Rep Hal Rogers a note TODAY telling him that you want to see the $444 million for Letcher kept out of the budget.

Members of Congress who sit on the budget committee can be found here.

Pick a few that are closest to you and tell them the same thing… Better yet, show up at their local offices to deliver the message in person.

And as we know, revolution takes more than a few phone calls and emails, it also means we must get out in to the street. On August 19, prisoners around the country and their allies have called for a national mobilization in D.C. to End Prison Slavery. If you can get there, go. If you can’t, plan local events and actions. (For example, check out what FTP in Florida has in store.

And last, you may have heard word at the convergence about a new Immigrant Detention facility underway near Houston, TX, built and operated by GEO Group. We want to support resistance to this construction. Keep up with this issue through the TX-based group Grassroots Leadership.

P.S. We are looking for feedback from participants: What did you come hoping to get out of it and how does that match up with what actually happened? Please reply to this email with your answer and it will be shared among organizers in hopes of improving next years’ convergence.

P.S.S. If you haven’t already, check out the online version of Candice Bernd’s excellent article, America’s Toxic Prisons. Hopefully you got to pick up a hard copy in TX, but this is intended to be an ongoing multi-media series, so keep an eye on it and pass it around.

DOJ Withdraws Funding Request for Kentucky Prison on Mountaintop-Removal Site

By Zoe Loftus-Farren - Truthout, June 30, 2017

Last month the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) withdrew its request for funding for construction of a maximum-security prison atop a former mountaintop-removal coal-mining site in eastern Kentucky.

The proposed $444 million facility, planned for Letcher County, has faced ongoing opposition from environmental and human rights organizations who have expressed a wide range of concerns about potential ecological and health impacts of the project. "Building this prison would have been terrible for the health of prisoners, the surrounding community and all the wildlife in the area," said Lori Ann Bird, who is environmental health program director with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Read Earth Island Journal and Truthout's special investigation into America's toxic prisons.

The Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of people held in US detention facilities, pointed to the history of mining-related pollution in the area -- including contamination of drinking water that could be used for the prison. The Human Rights Defense Center also noted the ongoing risk posed by more than a dozen active gas wells near the proposed site, as well as possible radon intrusion linked to coal mining in the area.

In a comment filed in response to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) 2015 environmental impact statement for the facility, opponents also cited impacts on the local community -- including potential water pollution from the prison itself -- as well as on nearby habitat and wildlife. Two federally endangered species, the Indiana bat and the gray bat, are found in the region, as are some 60 other species with varying levels of state and federal protections. 

"It's a pretty huge step toward victory," Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center, said of the DOJ's decision to abandon the plan.

The Prison Ecology Project and the Center for Biological Diversity point to growing local opposition, in conjunction with a coordinated campaign by advocates, as triggering the withdrawal. "This has been a tremendous effort by a lot of diverse groups coming together to oppose this prison, and shows the powerful impact we can achieve when the community comes together with activists from around the country to oppose a destructive project," Bird said.

In its announcement of the withdrawal of its request for funding, the DOJ cited a declining prison population over the past several years, and noted that the BOP could expand capacity at existing facilities and through private prisons if necessary. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons is a subdivision of the US Department of Justice.)

Not everyone has expressed support for the DOJ's decision. Local representative Hal Rogers (R-KY) argues that overcrowding in federal prisons necessitates new construction. In a June hearing on the Department of Justice's fiscal year 2018 budget, Representative Rogers argued that the project should proceed, emphasizing that Congress had already appropriated funding for the prison: "Congress has decided this and it's the Congress that controls the purse strings of the country… The money is there -- appropriated, authorized, everything in order." Rogers has also noted that the prison would be an important source of new jobs for an economically moribund region (though research shows that prisons generally don't improve the local economy and are, in fact, more likely to harm rather than help host communities).  

Opponents of the project remain cautiously optimistic while acknowledging that the victory may be temporary -- Congress hasn't yet passed the 2018 budget, and there's always the possibility that the DOJ could reverse course again at a later time. For now, the Prison Ecology Project is setting its sights on the next battle or battles, which might include: FMC Carswell, a women's prison in Texas built on a military base and surrounded by Superfund sites; a proposal to build a new prison on a landfill in Utah; a Hawaiian prison where the BOP has tried to skirt the environmental review process; and a proposal to build a women's jail on a toxic Superfund site in Los Angeles County.   

Tsolkas thinks the Letcher County win will lend momentum to these other fights. "The DOJ said basically they don't want the prison, they don't need it…. That's a powerful position to be fighting from."

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.

Pages