Environmental Justice for Inmates

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By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Nearly 600 federal and state prisons are within 3 miles of a Superfund site in the United States. Over 100 are within 1 mile. These numbers are staggering. To make matters worse, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 655 incarcerated per 100,000. Further, people of color are overrepresented in the incarcerated population, and are more likely to live near toxic waste sites. 
The siting of prisons is an environmental injustice. These facilities are built next to mines, landfills, and as previously mentioned, Superfund sites. Some are legitimately built on top of toxic land. Inmates, as well as the communities nearby, are bearing the threats of harsh pollution. 
The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act states that all federally funded construction must report to the Environmental Protection Agency to continue. In these reports consideration is often taken into the impact of the project onto the environment and how the environment would, in turn, impact its residents. Paul Wright, the director of the Human Rights Defense Center, says that the EPA does not consider the impact on prisoners in its environmental reviews. Additionally, advocates say that even though most of the prison population is made up of people of color and people from low income communities, the EPA does not apply its environmental justice regulation to prisoners. This is due, in part, to inmates not being counted in overall population data.
Here are just a few of the many facilities putting inmates in harm’s way:

  • State Correctional Institution Fayette in Labelle, Pennsylvania is located next to a coal ash dump.
  • Victorville Federal Correctional Institution in California is on top of, former Superfund site, George Air Force Base.
  • Rikers Island in New York was built on top of a landfill and even had a lawsuit in which former correctional officers claimed the facility gave them cancer.

The State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette in Labelle, Pennsylvania is nearby two coal slurry ponds and 40 million tons of coal waste. The ash dump is made up of toxics like mercury, lead, arsenic, and thallium. Because many prisoners were complaining of health issues, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition issued an investigation into the health of those incarcerated. More than 80 percent of inmates were “suffering from exposure” to the coal ash. Health problems included cancer, thyroid disorders, fatigue, throat and sinus conditions, dizziness, and headaches. Residents in the town of La Belle had similar symptoms and illnesses.
When Marcus Santos arrived at SCI Fayette he knew something was wrong. That led him to begin keeping notes of his symptoms. During his time at SCI Fayette, Santos had multiple emergency medical treatments for things like skin rashes, vision loss, and throat swelling. When he was finally relocated to another facility his health noticeably improved. Though Marcus was able to leave, the consequences from pollution exposure can be long lasting, especially on long-term inmates of SCI Fayette. 
Other environmental health issues inmates deal with are sewage and sanitation violations in their institutions, furthering the threats to their health. 
Those incarcerated are being further criminalized and punished by being prevented from living in a clean environment that is not a threat to their well-being. No one deserves to be breathing toxic air, drinking unclean water, and living on top of contaminated land. A clean environment is a basic human right, and no one should be subjected to these conditions.
Photo Credit: Bruno Mallart

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