MATTHEW MORGENSTERN IS CONVINCED his Hodgkin’s lymphoma was caused by exposure to toxic coal ash from the massive dump right across the road from SCI Fayette, a maximum-security prison in LaBelle, Pennsylvania, where he is currently serving a 5 to 10 year sentence. “In 2010 and until I left in 2013, the water always had a brown tint to it. Not to mention the dust clouds that used to come off the dump trucks … which we all breathed in…. Every single day I would wake up and there would be a layer of dust on everything,” he writes from inside the prison. When Morgenstern was sent back to SCI Fayette in 2016 after he violated parole, he found that the dust issue had abated a bit — work at the dump has been stalled for a year due to litigation, but the water still runs brownish and sometimes has “a funky smell.” He says he knows that the environment in and around the prison is still “messed up” and he’s concerned that his immune system, already weakened from fighting and overcoming cancer, won’t be able to withstand another onslaught of toxic exposure. “I myself have no doubt that if I’m kept here at Fayette, I will once again become sick,” he writes.
Likewise, in Navasota, Texas, Keith Milo Cole and John Wesley Ford, aging prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit, worry about how their prolonged exposure to arsenic-laced water and extreme heat during summer months may have affected their health over the long term. Like Morgenstern, Cole says the water at his unit was brown until a federal judge ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to provide the prisoners safe drinking water. “It used to be where you could take a white wash rag and put it in the sink and water would run on it about 10 or 15 minutes, and it would actually turn brown,” says Cole, who is serving a life sentence.
Farther west, in California, Kenneth Hartman was nearly 30 years into a life sentence when he contracted valley fever in 2008 at the California State Prison in Lancaster. The infection, caused by inhaling a soil-dwelling fungus, can be devastating. Though it is often mistaken for the common flu, it can kill people or leave those infected with lifelong symptoms. “The intensity or severity [of my symptoms] kept increasing to the point that I clearly remember thinking, If I get any sicker, I’m going to die,” Hartman says, writing from Lancaster where he is still incarcerated. “My physical strength was near to zero.… I had a persistent dry cough, severe night sweats, and bouts of vertigo that rendered me practically immobile.”
The plight of these prisoners points to a nationwide problem that’s inextricably linked to power imbalances within the US criminal legal system — a system in which prisoners are often out of sight and thus out of the public mind.
As a special investigation by Earth Island Journal and Truthout shows, the 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.
THE US LOCKS UP more people per capita than any other nation in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, currently some 2.3 million people are confined in more than 6,000 prisons, jails, and detention centers operated by multiple federal, state, county, and private actors. That’s about the population of Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city in the nation.
Since the 1970s, the US has seen a 700 percent increase in the number of people imprisoned, a result of the growth in “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies, as well as a concerted effort to control and minimize the power of social movements and other forms of resistance from within communities of color, says David Naguib Pellow, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who’s writing a book on prisons and environmental justice. The rate at which we lock people up today is some five times higher than most countries, even though the crime rate in the US is comparable to that of other stable, industrialized nations.
Holding large groups of people in closed facilities brings with it a host of associated civil and human rights problems — problems that have been well documented. But until recently, not much thought or research had been expended on the connections between mass incarceration and environmental issues, that is, problems that arise when prisons are sited on or near toxic sites as well as when prisons themselves becomes sources of toxic contamination.
Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), was among the few people who began to look into this connection on a broad scale nearly three decades ago. When Wright was serving time in Washington State’s McNeil Island prison in the 1990s, the tap water there too, used to run brown. “Yet the prison officials would be putting up signs saying the water is safe to drink,” he recalls. “There were a lot of environmental issues going on within the prison. It got me thinking. Just seeing how the prisons were on everything, I didn’t think they would be any better on the environment.”
Once he got out in 2003 after serving 17 years, Wright expanded Prison Legal News into the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of people held in US detention facilities. In 2014, the Center launched the Prison Ecology Project (PEP), which Wright says aims “first and foremost” to map the extent of the intersections between mass incarceration and environmental degradation, and then “do something to change it.”
“People [on the outside] generally aren’t thinking of prisons and jails as environmental problems or as places where people have legitimate concerns about the environment,” Wright says.
It’s well known that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation. Polluting facilities are more likely to be built in these communities, and environmental regulations are often less stringently enforced in these neighborhoods. This legacy of environmental injustice extends to the siting of prisons, which, too, are often located in or close to low-income communities. Additionally, they are built on some of the least desirable and most contaminated lands in the country, such as old mining sites, Superfund cleanup sites, and landfills. According to a GIS analysis of a 2010 dataset of state and federal prisons by independent cartographer Paige Williams, at least 589 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site on the National Priorities List, with 134 of those prisons located within just one mile.
“A lot of people, when they think of environment and toxic polluters, they think corporations, and they think that the government is somehow a solution to this problem,” Wright says. “The prison ecology issue turns that whole thing on its head because in these cases it’s the government that’s chosen to build these prisons on toxic waste sites or allowed them to become sources of toxic waste. And it is literally holding people at gunpoint at these sites and exposing them.”