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Toxic Prisons and Environmental Justice

Toxic Prisons

Dustin McDaniel, co-founder and executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), spoke to EKU College of Justice & Safety students, faculty and staff on Monday, March 21, 2016 about the work of the ALC and others to raise awareness about prisons being built on environmentally toxic sites and the impact of prison facilities on surrounding environments.

McDaniel spoke of the ALC’s use of environmental regulations and impact statements, similar to those used to delay or prevent coal mine development, to keep prisons from being built on hazardous sites.  “Fifty percent of prisons built in New Jersey are built on EPA Superfund sites,” said McDaniel.  In the view of the ALC, subjecting prisoners to live on contaminated locations constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is a violation of their 8th Amendment rights.

McDaniel spoke specifically of efforts to stop the construction of a federal prison facility near a reclaimed mountaintop coal removal site currently targeted for Letcher County.

“Scientific health studies of mountaintop removal sites show a connection between ill health and proximity to these sites,” said McDaniel.  Water quality is affected by acid mine drainage, sludge impoundment ponds and heavy metals seeping into creeks and other waterways, he said.

In addition to occupying an already contaminated site, prison facilities contribute additional pollution to the area.  “Prisons dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of water pollution such as sewage waste into the local sewage system,” said McDaniel.  That is in addition to the other sources of pollution created by the prison such as boiler systems waste and toxic waste from products produced on site.

As for the method used for choosing prison sites, McDaniel said it is the same one that is used by industries that pollute.  “Polluters seek out marginalized populations that larger society doesn’t care about what happens to them.  The same concept is used for prison sites.”  He cited the large growth of prisons in the San Joaquin Valley in California as an example.  He said mountaintop removal coal mine sites in central Appalachia are the targets for state and federal prison facilities for the same reason.

McDaniel and the ALC dispute the argument that prisons create jobs and boost the economy of economically depressed areas like Appalachia.  “Local people don’t work there,” said McDaniel.  “The job requirements like a college degree, never testing positive for drugs or no previous convictions eliminate locals and the prisons use national contractors for food, laundry and medical services,” he said.   The real reason McDaniel said, is “patronage and construction contracts”.  Another justification used by proponents of the prison in Letcher County is a need for bed space, but according to McDaniel, the trend of decarceration and the low number of local prisoners, doesn’t support that assertion.

Additionally, the ALC looks at the impact a prison facility would have on endangered species in local areas like the Lilley Cornett Woods which is near the proposed federal prison site in Letcher County.

A possible alternative to spending $500 million to build a prison in Letcher County would be using the money to designate the Lilley Cornett Woods as a national park and open it up for tourism.  According to McDaniel, this would be a more economically sustainable use of the region with significantly less negative impact on the environment. 

Published on March 22, 2016

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