Prisons and the Planet

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By Jacqueline Stoughton

The U.S. prison system is notoriously known for overcrowding and incarcerating citizens even for minor offenses. Overcrowding is now becoming a catalyst for other issues: financially, socially, and even environmentally.

The negative impacts on the environment that mass incarceration creates are now being brought to light through the efforts of the Prison Ecology Project.

The project aims to focus on sewage and industrial waste seeping into prisons’ water systems and threats to endangered species due to construction of prisons in environmentally sensitive areas throughout the country. This includes areas in Alabama, New York, and Connecticut where massive prisons are beginning to cause damage to their environments.

“Every time we look at a prison we look at how much water they’re using and sewage pollution. Overpopulated prisons almost always violate their permits,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, Coordinator of the Prison Ecology Project.

The Prison Ecology Project (PEP) is based out of Lake Worth, Florida and has been active for 25 years. The program is affiliated with the Human Rights Defense Center, also known for their launch of Prison Legal News, a publication that has been covering inmates’ rights around the world and has proven to be a valuable aid for criminal justice activists.

The PEP strives to bring focus to environmental issues that not only affect and damage the land the prison is build on, but also how the safety and health of inmates are being affected as well. The PEP believes that bringing environments surrounding prisons back up to code and lowering the prison population are inextricably connected.

“Most people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system have not have engaged with the environmental movement up to the present time. The PEP creates an entryway for them, as we are able to illustrate that the environmental toll of building and operating prisons indicates yet another reason to massively reduce the nation’s prison populations and send people back to their families,” states the PEP’s website.

Tsolkas explains that almost all federal prisons are at about 52 percent over capacity. They’re designed to fit approximately 1,000 people, but almost always end up assigning 1,500 or more to one prison. Most of the time, this is due to proximity to inmates’ families and communities, causing more inmates to be assigned to one prison.

“We’ve done a lot of stories and analysis of water pollution caused by prisons,” said Tsolkas. “We recently decided to tie in issues related to water quality and how prisons are usually built on hazardous waste sites.”

Tsolkas says that the Alabama prison system, where the Connecticut DOC originally intended to transfer women inmates during Danbury federal prison construction, is one of the biggest perpetrators of water waste.

“Alabama is one of the worst states and has a huge environmental problem with dumping water into the river.”

According to Prison Legal News, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has been delaying action on complaints of water pollution caused by its federal prison since 1991. The ADOC’s population has increased to 28,000 inmates, which played a huge role in the increase of water waste produced as they continued to dispose of toxic ammonia, fecal coliform, viruses, and parasites into the surrounding streams and rivers.

“[Prisons] are a huge burden on the budget and chronically violate environmental standards,” said Tsolkas. “Having tainted toxic water won’t have the same options of what to eat and cook with and drink, and all those problems become compounded when you’re a prison. The footprint of a prison is massive.”

Tsolkas encourages those who are interested in getting involved with the Prison Ecology Project to voice environmental concerns, visit their website, and pledge to the campaign.

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