The devastating impact of environmental racism in prisons.
In the United States, environmental racism refers to the ways in which marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards such as pollution, toxic waste, and other forms of ecological degradation. This systemic problem is not only limited to the outside world but also extends to the prison system, where incarcerated individuals are exposed to harmful substances with devastating health consequences long-term.
Environmental racism in prisons is not a new problem. In the late '80s and early '90s, activist groups like Critical Resistance and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons first began to organize around the issue of environmental injustice in prisons. Scholars have only lately arrived on topic.
Many prisons are built in areas that have been subjected to long-term environmental degradation.
This practice is known as "toxic prisons," and it primarily affects incarcerated individuals and the surrounding communities.
A 2022 report by Prison Policy Initiative states that "one-third (32 percent) of state and federal prisons are located within three miles of federal Superfund sites, the most serious contaminated places requiring extensive cleanup."
Moreover, the impact of environmental racism in prisons is exacerbated by the lack of oversight and regulation in the prison system.
Prisons are often exempt from environmental regulations that apply to other facilities, making it easier for them to engage in environmentally harmful practices. For example, some prisons fail to properly manage the disposal of hazardous waste or use toxic chemicals as disinfectants, leading to the release of harmful pollutants into the environment.
The lack of transparency and accountability in the prison system makes it difficult to track and address these issues.
Aricka Rodriguez, a prison abolitionist, advocate, and theorist, states that it's a safe bet that at least several state prisons are located in areas of California with the worst air quality. She estimates that as much as 40 percent of U.S. prisons are in similar areas.
"The reality is that prisoners are seen as expendable. Lawmakers and regulators know that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, which historically have also been seen as expendable," says Rodriguez. "So agencies like the EPA and legislation like the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act aren't being utilized to ensure that when prisons go up, prisoners don't go down."
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 mandates that all construction projects that receive federal funding, such as public housing, hospitals, and highways, must adhere to a rigorous environmental impact assessment process. This process involves submitting a detailed report to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that analyzes the current environmental conditions of the proposed project site, identifies potential ecological risks, and outlines plans to mitigate these risks.
Typically, these environmental impact reports evaluate the project's impact on a range of factors, including air and soil quality, vegetation and wildlife, historic sites, infrastructure, the local community, and the regional economy. Through this assessment process, the EPA seeks to ensure that federally funded projects do not have significant negative impacts on the environment and that all feasible measures are taken to minimize potential harm. NEPA purports to "eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere" and to "stimulate the health and welfare of man."
In contrast to the stated purpose of NEPA, the U.S. boasts many prisons like Angola Prison in Louisiana—which is located on a former slave plantation—where toxic chemicals from the plantation continue to contaminate the surrounding environment, exposing incarcerated individuals to health hazards. Similarly, incarcerated individuals in Flint, Michigan, were exposed to lead-contaminated water during the Flint Water Crisis, which caused long-term health problems, such as digestive and organ issues as well as the exacerbation of preexisting health issues.
Toxic prisons expose incarcerated individuals to a range of environmental hazards, including polluted air, contaminated water, and toxic waste. Prisons located near highways or industrial areas often have high levels of air pollution, which can cause respiratory problems, heart disease, and other health issues. For example, a study found that, "In the United States, asthma disproportionately affects non-white individuals," before going on to conclude that African American prisoners were twice as likely to suffer from asthma and that health professionals should work to inform and reform prison conditions.
The impact of environmental racism in prisons not only harms the incarcerated population but also extends beyond the prison's walls and into the surrounding communities. Prisons are often located in areas that are home to marginalized communities that also tend to be communities of color, who are often disproportionately affected by environmental degradation.
Angola Prison and the surrounding region are a part of "Cancer Alley," a large swath of land that emits large amounts of air pollution, which some have argued contributes to the high rates of respiratory problems and cancer in the surrounding community. Similarly, the toxic waste produced by prisons can contaminate nearby groundwater, rivers, and other natural resources, harming the ecosystem and the individuals who rely on these resources for their livelihoods.
The health consequences of environmental racism in prisons are severe and long-lasting. Incarcerated individuals are at increased risk for a range of health problems, including respiratory illnesses, cancer, and mental health disorders. Furthermore, the lack of access to adequate healthcare in the prison system means that these health problems often go untreated or are diagnosed at a later stage, leading to poorer health outcomes.
Abolitionist alternatives that center environmental justice are urgently needed to address this issue. To center environmental justice in abolitionist work, alternatives must prioritize the health and well-being of all individuals, including those who are currently incarcerated. This involves a shift away from punitive approaches to justice and towards restorative justice practices that prioritize the health and well-being of all individuals. This includes investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration, such as community service, restorative justice programs, and mental health and addiction services. It also must also involve addressing the root causes of environmental racism, such as the privatization of prisons and the lack of government regulation and civilian oversight.
The intersection of environmental racism and incarceration exposes the deep-seated inequalities and injustices that underlie the prison industrial complex. The prison system, rooted in the legacy of slavery, disproportionately targets communities of color—particularly Black and Indigenous communities—and subjects them to inhumane living conditions and systematic violence. The prison-industrial complex, as it exists today, is built on exploitation and oppression, perpetuating a system that harms not only the incarcerated individuals, but their families, communities, and the environment.
Abolitionist work that addresses the root causes of environmental racism is worth undertaking, as it is vital in the struggle against the broader issues of racial and economic inequality. It requires dismantling the capitalist system that prioritizes profit over people and the planet, and in turn, building a society that prioritizes the needs and well-being of all individuals. This can involve investing in green jobs and renewable energy, promoting sustainable agriculture, and building resilient communities that are not reliant on extractive and exploitative practices.
Abolitionist alternatives must also prioritize the voices and leadership of communities impacted by environmental racism and incarceration. Those who are most affected must be at the forefront of shaping solutions and strategies that work for them, rather than imposing solutions from above. That most definitely means centering the voices and experiences of the currently and formerly incarcerated. This involves building meaningful partnerships and collaborations, engaging in collective action, and working towards a just and equitable society that prioritizes the well-being of all individuals and the planet.
"Those thoughts of being abandoned by the whole world were all illusions, designed to make us feel more alone. All the people I met showed me, as a Palestinian, nothing but love, respect, solidarity, and fraternity."
Furthermore, the impact of environmental racism in prisons is not limited to the United States, but is a global issue. Incarcerated individuals around the world are exposed to similar environmental hazards and face similar health consequences, highlighting the need for a global approach to addressing environmental racism and incarceration.
Overall, it is crucial to continue raising awareness and advocating for abolitionist alternatives that prioritize environmental justice and the well-being of all individuals. Only through collective action, centering the voices and experiences of impacted communities, and addressing the root causes of environmental racism and incarceration can we hope to build a just and equitable society for all.
"The sad truth of all this is that the issue of environmental racism and incarceration highlights the deep-seated inequalities and injustices that underlie the prison industrial complex and our society at the macrocosmic level," says Rodriguez. "Our prisons, our rhetoric, and our stances on environmental, economic, racial and criminal justice tell the tale of who we are collectively—and that's a rather disturbing, poisonous tale."