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Prison abolition is environmental justice

Prism Reports, March 22, 2023.

After years of grassroots organizing, in 2019 the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) withdrew a proposal to build a maximum security prison in Roxana, an unincorporated town of 100 in eastern Kentucky’s Letcher County. The BOP announced it needed additional information for an environmental impact analysis, and it couldn’t find the justification for a new maximum security prison—the idea was originally floated in 2005 as a solution to prison “overcrowding.” But the federal prison population had dropped by 11% since 2009, and the BOP could no longer justify the construction. 

In September 2022, nearly four years after the BOP tabled the concept, the agency announced it planned to build a medium-security prison in Letcher County. The agency’s argument for the new Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) is that it’s best to build a new facility from the ground up, rather than repair outdated and failing infrastructure at federal prisons elsewhere. 

It’s an argument that doesn’t hold water for the many organizers, residents, incarcerated people, and environmentalists who have spent years fighting the BOP’s plans. They remain concerned that federal officials, including eastern Kentucky’s own congressional Rep. Hal Rogers, are willing to sacrifice communal and ecological health to maintain a harmful system. 

At the heart of the struggle against FCI Letcher is what organizers say is a continuum of violences at the intersection of environmental injustice, criminalization of BIPOC, and exploitation of under-resourced communities.

“When we actually look at who is harmed in both of these instances, it’s the same people,” said Jordan E. Martinez-Mazurek, co-founder of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, which built the coalition to organize against a new prison. “It’s Black people, it’s brown people, it’s Indigenous people, [and] it’s poor folks. It is the exact same populations that are being harmed by dangerous environmental conditions … [and] being thrown in the cages.”

Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than white people. Latinx people constitute 19% of the prison population despite making up 16% of the U.S. population. Indigenous peoples are incarcerated at a rate 38% higher than the national average, comprising as much as 3.7% of those incarcerated in federal prisons despite the national Indigenous population hovering around 1.7%. 

The organizing strategy of the communities fighting BOP’s proposal is focused on upholding environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. Through environmental impact statement (EIS) processes, which evaluate acute and long-term impacts on soil, water, air, and plant and animal species, organizers hope to build a coalition and defeat prison construction. 

Prisons have historically been placed in communities with little or no public conversation, so the environmental impact review process is a tactic that has not only defied this norm, but functioned “as an actual intervention,” said Woods Ervin, communications director for Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization aiming to end the prison-industrial complex. Because the public has a right to comment on environmental impact statements, a closed-door process is split open and made more democratic. 

According to Martinez-Mazurek, harnessing the environmental review processes helped defeat FCI Letcher four years ago. Organizers involved in the grassroots fight hope history will repeat itself and prevent a new prison from being built once and for all. 

A revised environmental impact statement is expected this summer, according to Martinez-Mazurek, at which point the public will be able to comment and file legal complaints and objections.

Prism reached out to the BOP with questions about its plan for the facility. The agency said questions regarding the facility would eventually be addressed as part of a public environmental impact statement.

Prisons are environmental hazards

Until relatively recently, the worlds of environmental and anti-incarceration organizing hadn’t leaned on each other. 

“How the abolitionist movement, prison rights movement, and the environmental justice movement can help each other deepens our analyses of what the problem is, what’s driving this problem, and what the solution might be,” said David Pellow, chair of the environmental studies department and director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Pellow has worked closely for many years with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and leads projects investigating the implications of the U.S. prison system on the environmental justice movement.

In eastern Kentucky, FCI opponents aim to illustrate the harms to ecosystems and communities that would come with new prison construction. 

Prison-related pollution in Pennsylvania, Alabama, and California all serve as examples of what Paul Wright says are the ways that prisons are able to dump, emit, and pollute with frequency and near impunity. Wright is the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News, a publication that’s documented human rights and environmental abuses since 1990. 

The environmental harm bleeds out in multiple directions, from sitting on toxic land or near polluting industries to acting as polluting entities themselves. 

Prison construction served as a way to repurpose already polluted lands, as was the case with a medium-security federal prison in Victorville, California. The prison is located on the defunct George Air Force Base, which is so polluted with chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund site. Cleanup began in 1996 and has yet to be completed. When the sites are too polluted for prison siting, the buildings are repurposed as Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. There are 589 federal and state prisons constructed within 3 miles of a Superfund site, the toxins of which can cause long-term chronic illness and cancer.

The examples of prisons polluting nearby streams, rivers, and waterways with raw sewage are well documented by Wright’s Prison Legal News. Examples are almost too numerous to list. In 2000, the Folsom State Prison in California polluted the American River with 700,000 gallons of raw sewage. Between 2008 and 2015, the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington dumped roughly 500,000 gallons of contaminated water in nearby waterways. According to the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a nonprofit advocate of Alabama’s Black Warrior River, Donaldson Correctional Facility illegally dumped untreated sewage into a tributary of the river for more than a decade, resulting in more than 1,000 violations of the Clean Water Act. 

In 1998, NEPA’s implementation was amended to exempt correctional facility construction projects on existing facilities from completing environmental impact statements. From 1999 through 2011, the EPA inspected prisons in the Mid-Atlantic, including through EPA Region 3’s “Federal Prison Initiative,” in which officials inspected violations at 16 facilities in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia starting in 2007. By 2015 the program had inexplicably ended. 

“The EPA has been asleep at the switch if not doing everything they can to ignore the switch and state environmental agencies,” Wright said. According to the Prison Legal News editor, the EPA has a “mixed record” when it comes to enforcing prison violations. And when the federal government addresses pollution from prisons and jails, it’s historically in service of communities surrounding prisons, rather than the people held inside them. 

In his scholarship on critical environmental injustice studies, Pellow argues that both institutionally and socially, incarcerated people, BIPOC communities, and the environment are all seen as disposable. 

“The EPA seeks to regulate prison pollution threats only insofar as they may affect nearby residential areas while they ignore the plight of prisoners facing myriad toxic exposures, and the DOJ and BOP manage the social pollution problem via the construction of prisons and the incarceration of human ‘waste’ in those facilities,” Pellow wrote in the International Journal of Earth & Environmental Sciences

Advocacy helps change institutional thinking around who is deserving of environmental protections. In 2017, the EPA added prisons to its environmental justice mapping tool after years of petitioning from organizations like the Human Rights Defense Center. The idea behind the push was that more reliable data would allow for better enforcement and more thorough advocacy.

Still, it remains to be seen if those in power are willing to take real action against the environmental injustices experienced by people incarcerated in prisons and jails. When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, the Democratic administration pledged a renewed focus on environmental and climate justice. Through a program called Justice40, the administration also said it would prioritize “disadvantaged communities” most impacted by environmental harms. As outlined in the proposal, incarcerated people and communities living near prisons are not included among those who “are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

“White middle-class people tend to view corporations as the villains of these environmental stories [and believe] that government is the savior,” Wright said. “Their worldview doesn’t seem to handle very well the idea that government is the toxic polluter and the government’s the bad guy.”

Each element refracted in this fight–whether it’s organizing against harms done to the environment and BIPOC communities or the role of government agencies in negating harms–present questions for further consideration, Pellow said. 

“How does the caging of human beings also reflect a broader logic of domination that affects the planet [and] that affects our relationships with our nonhuman species?” he asked. “How does that also reflect an obsession with and embrace of hierarchy that I think is at the root of so much of the harm that we’re dealing with?”

The best use of land, the best way to create jobs 

Rep. Rogers, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee from 2011 to 2017, originally approached the BOP in 2005 to begin the scoping process for FCI. Since 1992, Rogers has successfully sought funding for three federal prisons in his district, and in 2006, Congress approved $5 million to study potential sites for a fourth prison. Since then, he has received more than $500 million for the prison’s construction, which remains available to the BOP. Advocates say the House Appropriations Committee should rescind the funds. Prism contacted Rogers with questions about his record. The representative’s office did not respond.

The planned site of the prison—which would be the fifth in the region and most expensive federal prison in U.S. history—is the former location of a mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining operation. Mountaintop removal is arguably one of the most destructive ways to mine coal because of its effect on waterways, soil, and bodily health. Cancer rates for those living nearby a mountaintop removal coal mining site are 14.4%, compared to 9.4% for those living elsewhere in Appalachia. Despite well-documented harms among communities with the most immediate relationship to the coal industry, mountaintop removal was a popular business practice: you could get to the coal faster and with fewer workers. 

The land and its communities in the region have already experienced the devastation of MTR mining. A new prison would cause more devastation, requiring clear-cutting 120 acres of forest, excavating 59 additional acres of land, destroying 3 acres of wetland, and emitting thousands of pounds of greenhouse gasses, according to a 2019 lawsuit filed by the Abolitionist Law Center.

“These facilities are not little islands,” said Dustin McDaniel, finance director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “They have rural towns and other people living around them as well who are also impacted by any pollution that might be caused by the prisons themselves.”

Aside from the clear and documented environmental and ecological concerns, those who advocate for the abolition of prisons and the carceral system say that a new prison belies the needs of disinvested communities. 

Since 2005, Rogers has boasted that the prison’s construction will create 300 new jobs, an argument for employment that often adjoins campaigns for new prisons. It’s also an argument that industry groups have made to boom-and-bust regions of Appalachia since the 1990s, when prison construction reached an all-time high. During that time, one industry publication wrote, “In Kentucky’s coal country, prisons have become the cornerstone of an economic renewal meant to offset the decline of coal mining.” In Kentucky, there are now 1.5 times more jobs working in prisons and jails than in coal. 

From the 1970s through 2010s, the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. prison system increased by more than 500%, expanding to 2.3 million people. During that time, more than 1,000 new prison facilities were built to accommodate the increasing population. Between 1990 and 1999, a prison opened every 15 days in rural America. In doing so, incarceration grew into an industry, and into an inevitability. 

Yet the research doesn’t support the claim that prisons create economic vitality in Appalachia. One 2016 study published in the Journal of Appalachian Studies found that towns with prisons maintained higher rates of poverty than those without. It’s worth noting that a correctional officer makes $36,750 in Kentucky annually. The federal poverty rate for a family of four is $30,000. “We find little evidence to support the claim that prisons are engines of growth,” the study’s authors wrote, going so far as to warn that “policymakers would be well served using great caution before pursuing this development pathway.”

This pattern has made itself clear, time and time again, where low-resourced communities are offered a proposal for economic self-sufficiency predicated on the very political and economic instability that criminalization thrives on. 

“The communities that primarily feel the impact of prisons are oftentimes people whose families are either locked up in the prisons and or are otherwise impacted by the lack of generative political economy or generative industry that’s unfolding in the state as opposed to the more extractive industries,” Ervin said.

In 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative found that the median annual income of incarcerated people prior to their incarceration was $19,185, based on the most recent available data from 2004. A Brookings Institute analysis in 2018 of Internal Revenue Service data found that “boys who grew up in families in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution—families earning less than about $14,000—are 20 times more likely to be in prison on a given day in their early 30s than children born to the wealthiest families.” 

What comes next

While preparing for the environmental impact statement, Martinez-Mazurek has different goals this time. It’s not just about making sure FCI never breaks ground, but about rerouting the funding altogether. 

“We’re going for the money,” Martinez-Mazurek said.“We want to get that money reappropriated in Congress … to be invested in Appalachia in life-giving institutions and not in these death-making institutions.”

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