Environmental Justice is a system of thought which asserts that all people have a right to equal environmental hazard protection and access to the decision-making process upon which their welfare hinges. Moreover, this paradigm recognizes that marginalized groups are, by far, the most affected by environmental harms. Environmental Justice and Incarceration my not seem to have much in common at first glance, however, over a thousand prisons across America are home to shocking toxic hazards.
Independent cartographer Paige Williams claims that at least 589 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site on the National Priorities List, with 134 of those prisons located within just one mile. Furthermore, it is common practice to build prisons on former industrial cites which are hosts to a myriad of health hazards.
Paul Wright, Executive Director of the Human Rights Defense Fund, explains that “one of the patterns that we see is where corporations have come in, they pillage the environment, be it by mining, forestry or whatever, and then when everything has been exhausted, when trees have been cut down, every last grain of ore has been ripped from the soil, and everything has been contaminated and poisoned in the process, the final solution is, okay now we’re going to build a prison here.”
SCI Fayette is one of many such prisons, located on the corner of an abandoned coal preparation plant which has become a dumpsite, containing 45 million tons of coal refuse. Coal ash exposure can lead to a host of conditions, including respiratory problems, hypertension, heart problems, brain and nervous system damage, liver damage, stomach and intestinal ulcers, and many forms of cancer, including skin, stomach, lung, urinary tract and kidney. A 2014 review found that 81 percent of the 75 prisoners who responded to a health survey claimed to suffer from respiratory, throat and sinus conditions; 68 percent experienced gastrointestinal problems; 52 percent reported adverse skin conditions; and 12 percent said they were diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. The report also noted 11 of the 17 prisoners who died at SCI Fayette between 2010 and 2013 had died of cancer.
Kenneth Hartman, who nearly died from contracting a fungal infection in a California State prison, asserts that “prisons found to be a serious health risk need to be closed. The changes made [to address valley fever] are about managing risk and trying to avoid lawsuits, not about fixing the problems of a massively dysfunctional prison system.” He alludes to a larger issue with the public mindset: “the problem is, the intersection of environmental justice and mass incarceration runs right into the teeth of prisoners not being considered worthy of justice. If we complain about dirty water, or poor ventilation systems, or inadequate medical care, there is a collective societal shrug: You should have thought about that before you committed crime.”
Mass incarceration traps thousands of Americans in areas of life-threatening toxic exposure. We cannot go on turning a blind eye to this sickening abuse of human rights.
Join the Prison Ecology Project Campaign: http://nationinside.org/campaign/prison-ecology/