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Prison Ecology Project

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.


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