An investigation released yesterday (June 1) by Truthout and Earth First Journal takes a deep dive into what prisons across the United States look like in terms of environmental safety and prisoner health. Their conclusion? Not so good.
[T]he toxic impact of prisons extends far beyond any individual prison, or any specific region in the United States. Though some prisons provide particularly egregious examples, mass incarceration in the US impacts the health of prisoners, prison-adjacent communities, and local ecosystems from coast to coast.
Across the country, federal environmental violations are abundant state by state. In Oklahoma, prisons have committed up to 241 violations, according to the article. Some of the states with the highest number of environmental violations include California, Arizona and New York.
The special report offers the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo as an example: It is notorious for water pollution. In 2004, it faced a $600,000 state fine for spilling 220,000 gallons of raw sewage near Chorro Creek. Another spill occurred in 2008, again in 2014—and yet again in 2015 and in January of this year.
Under the Clean Water Act, federal and state agencies have launched 132 informal actions and 28 formal actions against regulated prisons and jails. Those have added up to $556,315 in fines. Agencies also used the Clean Air Act to take action against incarceration facilities: 92 informal actions and 51 formal actions amounting to $97,048.
As the report makes clear, most of the victims of these violations are the prisoners themselves, most of whom are Black or Latinx. Perhaps a prison sits on a Superfund site. Or maybe there’s a toxic coal ash dump across the street. Or the water they drink is contaminated with arsenic or lead.
The issue goes beyond environmental justice. It’s also an issue of climate justice as climate change exacerbates the conditions prisoners face. In the Southwest, where summer temperatures can be extreme, a metal bedframe can become dangerous if a facility lacks proper air conditioning.
The report continues:
In other cases, prison conditions can be made worse by climate change.
As in California, 2011 was a deadly year in Texas prisons. That summer, 10 prisoners died of heat stroke in state-operated prison units. The deaths are among 22 in-custody hyperthermia deaths that the state has acknowledged in its 108 prisons units. Seventy-nine of those units still lack air-conditioning in 2017, even as summer temperatures regularly soar beyond 100 degrees.
“The beds and cubicle wall are metal. [During summer] they are hot and can’t be laid on or touched, like touching the hood of a car that has sit (sic) in the sun on a 130-degree day,” Ford writes about the conditions at the Wallace Pack Unit, a Type I geriatric prison incarcerating predominantly elderly and disabled prisoners who require continuous medical care. “Most of us try to wet our sheets and the cement floor. We lay in the water, put the sheet over us while blowing the fan under the sheet, to keep the body temps down.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s solution during periods of extreme heat was to tell Pack Unit prisoners to simply drink more water, recommending up to two gallons of water a day on extremely hot days. There was just one problem: The water at the Unit contained between two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half times the level of arsenic permitted by the EPA. Arsenic is a carcinogen. The prisoners drank thousands of gallons of the arsenic-tainted water for more than 10 years before a federal judge ordered TDCJ to truck in clean water for the prisoners last year. TDCJ installed a modern filtration system in January.
The report takes the reader into the lives of several prisoners and the various health impacts these conditions have had on their lives. Read the complete story here to meet them.