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The Prison-Industrial Complex Is An Environmental Catastrophe

Above Photo: A general view shows the Rikers Island jail complex in the East River of New York, from Queens, on January 13, 2022. Ed Jones / AFP via Getty Images.

Combined with the fact that many prison and jail facilities are built on hazardous sites, the environmental pollution caused by these facilities is a disaster for everyone in and around them.

“As a result of being on or near wastelands, prisons constantly expose those inside to serious environmental hazards, from tainted water to harmful air pollutants,” Leah Wang recently wrote for the Prison Policy Initiative. “These conditions manifest in health conditions and deaths that are unmistakably linked to those hazards.” In this edition of Rattling the Bars, Mansa Musa speaks with Paul Wright about the scope and scale of the drastic environmental hazards the prison-industrial complex poses to incarcerated people, prison staff, and surrounding communities.

Paul Wright is the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center. He is also editor of Prison Legal News (PLN), the longest-running independent prisoner rights publication in US history. Wright has co-authored three PLN anthologies: The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison IndustryPrison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor; and Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Imprisonment.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Mansa Musa:    Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway. First of all, let’s acknowledge this, that Eddie is making a lot of progress and he’s continued to get better. And we are thankful for all your well wishes and your concerns. We’re also thankful for your continuing to respect the family’s wishes that Eddie has privacy as he recovers. Thank you very much.

We also thank you for continuing to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. The prison-industrial complex has a lot of problems, and so many [more are likely to come]. But one problem that seems to be going overlooked is the environmental hazards that take place daily in the prison-industrial complex. Here to talk about the environmental hazardous conditions that take place in prisons throughout the United States and the world is Paul Wright. Paul Wright is the executive director of Prison Law News, and he’s heavily involved in this space. Welcome, Paul, to Rattling the Bars.

Paul Wright:    Hi. Thanks for having me on the show.

Mansa Musa:    Let’s go here first. How prevalent are these environmental conditions in prisons, be it the BOP, state prisons, or county jails? How prevalent are these environmental conditions?

Paul Wright:    It’s actually pretty common. And this is the context that the United States has around 3,500 jails, around 2,000 prisons, plus other types of detention facilities ranging from psychiatric facilities, the civil commitment facilities, military prisons, immigration prisons, and more. And I think it’s important to note that there’s almost two different types, broadly speaking, there are two main types of environmental hazards that prisoners face. One is where the prison or the jail itself is built on literally a toxic waste site. And we have this all over the country. Prisons like the Federal Prison System in Florence, Colorado, where the supermax prison is. That’s built on literally an abandoned uranium mine. We have a lot of prisons in Pennsylvania and Ohio and other parts of Appalachia that are built on abandoned mining sites. And these are literally prisons that are on toxic waste sites.

This is very widespread. So on the one hand, you’ve got the prisons that are built on basically land that’s been deemed too dangerous to do anything else with. It’s too dangerous for any type of industrial activity. It’s been largely abandoned. Then the flip side of it is, you’ve got the prison itself is the source of the toxic waste. We see this literally all over the country, where prisons, in some cases literally due to overcrowding, they’re sources of everything from raw sewage into neighboring waterways, to the prison itself is spewing or dispersing toxic waste, whether it’s heavy metals, it’s dangerous chemicals, or whatever, into the surrounding environment. And those are the two main things that we see. And because there’s so many prisons and jails in this country, it’s literally a pretty widespread problem.

And the big thing is, when it’s the former, when it’s a prison that’s built on the toxic waste site or the prison itself that’s physically in a toxic space, the main people that are being impacted by that are the staff and the prisoners, the people that are literally confined there, working there. But then when it’s the prison that’s the source of the toxic waste, typically, the prisoners and staff are obviously impacted, but so is the surrounding community. And literally of the cases where the surrounding community is the one that’s being most impacted by the toxic waste or the raw sewage or whatever being dispersed or generated by the prison. So those are the two broad categories of toxic waste that we see coming out of or being impacted by prisons.

Mansa Musa:    And I know from experience that in terms of the first situation where most prisons are built on toxic sites. In Maryland, for example, Eastern Correctional Facility was built on a swamp. So it’s sinking, and the water that is being used by the prisoners even to drink or take showers in is oftentimes polluted, and oftentimes they’re told to let the water run, or when they take a shower it [feels slimy]. But let’s go, let’s look at prisons regulated by the EPA or OSHA. Are they regulated to ensure that the hazardous environmental conditions are somewhat kept in check, or are they allowed to just run amok?

Paul Wright:    They pretty much run amok. I mean, we’ve tried literally for decades to get the Environmental Protection Agency to do stuff about prisons. And it’s interesting that, for virtually all of their entire history, the EPA has done nothing about prisons. And that was kind of interesting is, in the early 2000s, the Mid-Atlantic region, which of the EPA, which was basically Pennsylvania and Delaware and that area there, they actually took some enforcement actions against prisons. And not a lot, but five or six. And they went in, they inspected prisons, they fined them for everything from having old coal fired water heating plants on prison grounds that were causing air pollution. Those were the main ones. There were also things where fuel storage facilities on the grounds of the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg in Pennsylvania were leaking, and they also fined him over that.

And they did this for around five or six years. And then not only did they stop doing it, but it was kind of interesting. They also stopped posting this on their website. And not only did they do that, but then they removed it from their website. We were trying to research what the EPA was doing, if they’re doing anything else. And we had the documents on our website, we downloaded theirs, we put them on ours. And then when we went back to see what else they’d done, we found that the documents they had showing their previous enforcement actions were no longer there. So we called the EPA and asked them, hey, why’d you take the documents down? And they said, oh, we’re updating our website. Well, since when does updating mean you take the old stuff down? And they never answered that.

But basically, the EPA, that was almost an exception to the rule. And I forget how many regions or zones the EPA has. I want to say it’s 10 or 11 around the country, but this was the only one. The Mid-Atlantic region was the only one where they ever took any type of enforcement action around prisons. And they only did it for a very limited period of time. They only did it for a couple of years, and then they stopped. And the EPA is not a very transparent organization. So when we’ve tried to get answers to these questions, we haven’t been able to get them. But the upshot though is, in answer to your question is that yes, they very much do run amok. The interesting thing is that then when we’ve tried looking at whether state agencies are doing any type of enforcement action, you talk about Maryland in years past, we’ve reached out to… I think this would be the Department of the Environment in Maryland, to ask them what they were doing about environmental issues in Maryland prisons.

And their response was that all their records were on paper. They had them in filing cabinets. And if we wanted copies of these reports, we’re going to have to pay thousands of dollars to get the hard copies. They had nothing electronic, they had nothing they could otherwise share with us or tell us about. And we found this with a lot of states. Some states are a little bit better, California is one that’s interesting. The California Department of the Environment, they’ve taken enforcement actions against literally dozens of prisons. They impose millions of dollars of fines every year for prisons doing everything from dumping raw sewage into waterways around the prisons and the surrounding environment, to prisons dumping toxic chemicals and dangerous chemicals into the waterways and the environment around the prison. But their whole model is literally one of imposing fines.

They don’t stop the actual pollution. And it’s interesting because when you delve into the reason for this, the federal law under the Clean Water Act, for example, is that no one can sue a toxic polluter if a state agency or another regulatory agency is taking action against them. So what they’re doing in California, for example, is the Department of the Ecology is fining the Department of Corrections, another state agency, millions of dollars every year for all these toxic water and toxic waste violations. So the money’s going from one state bank account into another state bank account. But by doing so, it keeps anyone from suing them privately to get them to stop the pollution in the first place. And the upshot is that there’s nothing being done to actually stop the pollution. Also in California, for example, there’s prisons in Kern County, the Kern County State Prison, for example, they have incredibly high levels of arsenic in the water. And it’s a naturally occurring chemical. It’s also a known carcinogen, and obviously, I mean, that’s what they use in rat poison.

So in high enough quantities, it is fatal to humans. In low quantities, prolonged exposure tends to cause cancer and then it kills you. And the CDCR, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, they’ve known this for years, and basically, they keep the prison open. They keep exposing prisoners to the arsenic tainted water. And the other state agencies that are tasked with regulating this, they do nothing because it’s another state agency.

Mansa Musa:    Which brings me to my next question, because as you outline, I remember reading in, I think it was Wolff v. McDonnell case that dealt with the adjustment. And I think I read where it said, it’s no [inaudible] between the constitution in prisons. Which brings me to my next question. And I was researching this, I saw where we had made multiple attempts to get some type of judicial resolve on a litigation level. And the standard is so high. Can you speak on that?

Paul Wright:    Sure. One of the things that’s kind of bad about this is the fact that the actual successful litigation around these toxic prison conditions is few and far between. One of the exceptions was a case that the Human Rights Defense Center, of which I’m the director of, recently submitted a friend of the court brief on was a case in Connecticut where prisoners were being exposed to radon. And radon is a naturally occurring gas, it comes out of the soil, it’s colorless and it’s odorless. And basically it impacts a lot of buildings. And especially any places that have hard stones like granite, for example, those tend to be rocks that give off radon. And so the prisoners filed a lawsuit saying, hey, we’re being exposed to radon and the state isn’t doing anything about it. And so that was one of the things that prison officials resisted.

And so far, the case is still ongoing, and the prisoners are seeking damages as well as an injunction to fix the problem. And the interesting thing, at least with radon, that’s an easy fix, that’s a couple $100,000 to basically ensure there’s better ventilation in the prison. And that literally takes care of the problem for radon. Other problems like toxic water, those are a lot more expensive, and in some cases they’re impossible to fix. Prisons use a lot of water, so for places like the current state prison in California where there’s arsenic in the water, the only real alternative there is literally to shut down the prison. That’s about the only thing they can do. There’s not a lot of options there. Likewise, I think, when you see a lot of these prisons have been built in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, they’re built on abandoned coal mines, and there’s problems there with everything from contaminated water from mining chemicals that have gotten into the water supply.

And in some cases, literally, the prisons are sinking. And one of my favorite cases was a prison in Ohio, in Lorain, Ohio, that was built on an abandoned coal mine. And they built the prison, they spent 80 or 90 million dollars to build the prison. And then after around 10 years, the ground was settling, as the earth was collapsing and filling in these mining shafts and everything else. And so the prison started to sink on top of that. There’s some great pictures of these cell blocks where literally the earth sunk six feet. And it’s literally cutting a cell block in half, where all of a sudden one part of the cell block is six feet lower than the other. And so, one of the reasons that so many prisons are built on these toxic waste sites is that under federal environmental law, the polluter that basically pollutes the land is responsible for the cleanup.

And so what’s happened, though, is that by selling this land to prisons and to government entities, they’re kind of off the hook, they’re unloading their liability. When you see some of these hundreds of acres of land in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, these mining companies sold land, in some cases for a dollar, in other cases for a couple $100,000, which on the one hand, you look at it and you say, wow, the government got a great deal here. They paid little or nothing for hundreds of acres of land, but it was also really slick on the part of the companies, because what they’re doing is they’re offloading the liability. As soon as they sold that abandoned coal mine or that abandoned uranium mine to the government, they also wiped out their liability for cleaning it up.

And one of the other things that’s really been especially distressing at the federal level is a lot of people, folks that are old enough to remember this at the end of the Cold War, the United States, the military shut down dozens of bases around the country. And the government in its moment of brilliance there then decided, hey, we’re closing down military bases, but we’re building hundreds of new prisons in the 1990s.

So instead what they did, they found that a lot of these military bases after decades of use were literally… The bases themselves were toxic waste sites for everything from spilled fuel, to ammunition, the lead from a lot of ammunition from shooting ranges and artillery rounds and everything else was a huge problem. So what they wound up doing was literally the Department of Defense transferred a lot of this land, a lot of these military bases to the Bureau of Prisons. That’s why you’ve got prisons… And these aren’t little prisons, either, these are big ones, the federal prison at Fort Dix, New Jersey, that’s like a 3000, that prison. You’ve got the federal prison in Victorville in California. And so you’ve got literally dozens of these former military bases that were pretty much left too contaminated and too toxic for any other land use function. They couldn’t turn them into residential housing, they couldn’t turn them into shopping malls or anything like that. So the brilliant idea was, hey, let’s build prisons here.

Mansa Musa:    And I’m recognizing what you’re saying because when we look at the prison landscape, most of the prisons are built in Rural America. And it is Rural America where a lot of these toxic environmental things take place, where the government allowed for these companies to dump and do things. But let’s move on to the effects of prisoners living in these environments. I heard you say radon, and when I was doing research on this, it said radon is the number one cause of lung cancer in prisoners who are in those environments. And I know for a fact that Eddie Conway has a form of lung cancer, and we suspect and believe that he got it from the Maryland prison system. Can you speak on some of the health hazards that are in prisons that have these toxic waste environments?

Paul Wright:    Sure. I mean, I think that the big thing is, the problem with a lot of this stuff is that prolonged exposure, it doesn’t lead to immediate… It’s not an immediate thing. And the problem is that a lot of this stuff, prisoners are exposed to these, everything from radon, to arsenic in the water, to coal ash in the air, uranium in the water supply and also in the air, and things like that. And it tends not to be an immediate thing. It’s not as simple as, hey, I drank some water with arsenic and I keeled over dead or I got sick the next day. The way it pans out is, you were drinking arsenic contaminated water for five years, and then 30 years later you’ve got bladder cancer, or 30 years later you’ve got kidney cancer.

And same thing with radon, where you breathe in the radon air, and 20, 30 years later, you’ve got lung cancer. The fact that these are slow killers. And a lot of times, people, they’re dying from this and they don’t know why. It’s just like, wow, I guess I got bladder cancer, it’s just too bad. I guess that’s my bad luck. And they’re not making the connection that drinking contaminated water for five or 10 years while they were in prison might be the culprit. Or the same thing with lung cancer. It’s like, hey, I got lung cancer, hey, I never smoked, I wonder why that is.

And they’re not making the connection that being exposed to radon during a period of incarceration may have led to that. I think that’s what’s the bad thing, it’s not necessarily an immediate thing. Some of the other things, too, that we’re also seeing with climate change having an increasing impact on the environment. We’re also seeing this, especially in places like California, in Oregon, as you mentioned earlier, so many of these prisons built in the last 30 years have been built in rural areas. They’ve built a lot of these prisons in areas that are prone to… Let’s start ticking off the list: forest fires, flooding, hurricane damage. I live here in Florida, and in the last 15 years, between Florida, Louisiana, Texas, literally all the states that border on the Gulf of Mexico, have seen prisons and jails literally devastated by flooding and wind damage caused by hurricanes.

So far, no prisons have been wiped out by a forest fire, but we’ve seen a lot of prisons getting seriously damaged and in danger of getting burned down by forest fires. And then it’s one of the things when we talk about the building of prisons on toxic waste sites, there’s a couple of which I call the trifecta prisons, where one of my favorite ones, as an example, is the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. And this is an integration detention facility, it’s built and operated by the private for-profit company GEO Corrections to house immigration prisoners. And it’s built on an abandoned Asarco aluminum smelter. For 40 or 50 years, Asarco had an aluminum smelter there, so the ground is contaminated with cyanide, arsenic, cadmium, all these heavy metals.

And then for good measure, it’s in a lava flood zone. The jails, I don’t know, around 10 miles or so from Mount Rainier, which is one of the biggest active volcanoes in the United States. And they expect that if and when it blows up again, which it does every couple hundred years, that basically the lava flowing to the sea is going to go straight through where this jail is. And the amazing thing is that everyone knows this. Geologists have known that this is a lava flood zone for decades. And when GEO built the prison there, they knew that it was on an abandoned aluminum smelter that was contaminated. They also knew that it was in a lava flood zone. And they went ahead and built it anyway.

Mansa Musa:    Right. I think you made the case earlier about how corporations are allowed to pawn off the clean up or the collateral aspect of these toxic environments by just getting somebody to come in and buy the property. You spoke on two tracks, let’s look as it relates to the prison environment in and of itself, a lot of the industry. I worked in the tag shop when I was incarcerated, and I know a lot of the equipment was antiquated, a lot of the ventilation system – Although they tried to upgrade it. But in comparison to what was necessary, they didn’t do a good job. From your environment, how do you see the prison industry playing into the environmental terrorism that we are talking about today?

Paul Wright:    The prison industry is a huge source of toxic chemicals and toxic waste in the prison. That’s why, when I mentioned earlier that, in a lot of cases, the prison itself is the source of toxic chemicals and contamination to the outside environment, prison industries are the main one. In Prison Legal News, over the decades we’ve reported so many examples of toxic waste coming out of prison industries, especially stuff having to do… It seems like there’s certain industry categories that it’s almost like you can almost have your checkbox. If they’re doing anything to do with painting. And in most states, it’s prison industries that do the road signs that you see along the interstate and alongside the road, those are all being built in prisons.

And the solvents and the chemicals that they use to make those signs, they wind up just getting poured down the drain and dumped into the waterways or the environment outside the prison. That’s a huge one. It’s almost like, you just check down the list of things that any given prison industry’s doing. As long as it’s anything to do with chemicals, whether it’s road signs, state vehicle work, updating state vehicles, stuff like that. Any time you’ve got prison industries working with any type of chemical, you can almost bet money that they’re being improperly disposed of, and they’re being dumped or used in a way that’s contaminating the environment around the prisons. Those are all the big ones. The other things too, I mean, it’s hard. It’s kind of one of those things that this only applies to older prisons, generally ones that were built before 1970, 1975, as asbestos is a huge issue in these older prisons.

And that’s just because before the 1970s, asbestos was viewed as literally a miracle mineral. And you can do all this neat stuff with it, and it doesn’t burn. So people, the builders, the architects, everyone thought, hey, this is great and especially for public buildings. And it’s not just prisons, but also schools, government buildings of all types, city halls, army barracks, everything else was built with asbestos. And the problem with these older prisons is that you still see a lot of these older prisons that are still using, or they’re still contaminated with asbestos. And the problem with asbestos is as it ages, it deteriorates and it goes airborne. And when it goes airborne, that’s when people are in danger from it. And there’s been lots and lots of cases where prisoners and staff are being exposed to this airborne asbestos. And that’s another illness where people are exposed to the asbestos, they breathe it in, and it’s 20, 30, 40 years later before they start showing symptoms and it kills them.

Mansa Musa:    Right. And when you talked about the sign shop, see, Eddie Conway worked in the sign shop. When you talk about asbestos, the Maryland prison system from the period that we went in, we went in the 70s, and that’s basically what you see, asbestos covered pipes. But let’s talk about what can the community do, or what can prisoners do to try to reverse this environmental terrorism that’s taking place daily within the prison-industrial complex?

Paul Wright:    Well, I mean, there’s a lot of stuff. A lot of it has to do also with just first off documenting and improving. And we find that a lot of times, the states, if you get the public records that are testing for this stuff. But the thing is, the public doesn’t know about it, and more importantly, prisoners don’t know about it. But I also think that one of the leverage points to keep in mind is that, yes, the prisoners are being exposed to it 24/7, because they’re the ones living there. But it’s also important to remember that staff are also being exposed to this stuff, especially things like asbestos, anything that’s in the air. A lot of times the water, when you’ve got the stuff, the prisons being built on abandoned coal mines and stuff like that. The water, we find there’s a lot of prisons where the staff are pretty clear is, hey, we bring in our own water.

If it’s not coming out of a bottle that we bring in, we’re not drinking it. And that’s usually a pretty good indicator that you probably shouldn’t be drinking the water either if you can avoid it. First off, once you have the awareness about it, you start taking actions to it, and that includes everything from, can you improve the water supply? Or if you can’t, then maybe you need to shut the prison down. Those are very real issues. Other things, as far as stuff like the radon, for example, that’s an easy fix in the sense, as these things go, it’s usually a couple $100,000 for a prison. They just got to improve the ventilation to fix radon.

Asbestos, that’s kind of one of those things, they’ve gotten pretty good asbestos remediation where they go in with crews in hazmat suits and take all the asbestos out. The only problem is it’s slow and it’s expensive. These asbestos removal workers make a lot of money because it’s dangerous work. And it also takes a long time, you know what I mean. I’ve seen the prisons where they go in and remove the asbestos, and usually it’s a two to three year process. In the meantime, they’ve got to close the prison down or close the unit down while they do it. And the trend from what I’ve seen with most of the prisons that do it is they don’t. It’s just, they go in and, hey, let’s just put more duct tape on the asbestos covered pipes and hope the duct tape keeps everything in. That’s a cheap and easy solution, and that’s what they seem to opt for.

But where I think the outside community can and really should be getting involved in, though, are things like where the prison is dumping raw sewage into their water supply, where the prison is the source of toxic chemicals coming from their prison industries, things from the prison industry plants. These are the things that I think that the outside community is literally impacted by. But one of the things that we have found, though, when we’ve tried to organize folks in the community around this stuff is, because all too often, the prison is the biggest employer in the county or in the city or whatever, especially in these rural areas, no one wants to say anything. And I used to think when we started doing this environmental work around prisons, I used to think that, regardless of what your views are on criminal justice or sentencing or crime and punishment, no one wants feces in their drinking water.

And what I found, though, is that a lot of Americans are perfectly okay with feces in their drinking waters as long as it’s the government that’s putting it there. And that’s one of the things that’s been kind of the big head scratcher for me is the fact that, when you have people, you have communities, they know about this toxic contamination, they know what the source is, but because it’s the government doing it, they’re okay with it. They figure that, hey, 500 prison jobs is worth having feces in our drinking water. That’s the price we pay to have 500 jobs in our community.

Mansa Musa:    The real news about environmental terrorism that exists in the prison-industrial complex. We’d like to thank you, Paul Wright, for coming in and enlightening our viewers and our listeners to this travesty that’s taking place. This is a human issue.

Paul Wright:    Thank you very much for having me on the show. And if anyone wants more information about what’s happening in prisons and jails, please go to And we have extensive coverage on environmental issues as well as all human rights issues in American prisons and jails as well.

Mansa Musa:    And we ask everyone to continue to support The Real News as we bring forth these horrifying but realistic events that’s taking place in the prison-industrial complex. Thank you very much.

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