The Truth About Toxic Prisons

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Scholar argues that many U.S. prisons are built on hazardous waste sites and lack oversight.

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For decades, environmental health problems have plagued communities across the United States. One of the most affected—yet neglected—communities facing environmental harms is that comprising the nation’s prison population.

In an article, sociologist Elizabeth Bradshaw argues that many correctional facilities rest on hazardous waste sites or pose other environmental threats, exposing incarcerated individuals to a variety of health risks. According to Bradshaw, the federal government has not fulfilled its obligations to address this nationwide problem.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton directed federal agencies to address environmental justice concerns for minority and low-income populations. But agency officials have never conducted meaningful analysis under this directive, argues Bradshaw. Instead, they have used boilerplate language to check off their fulfillment of the environmental justice guidance. Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has not considered the prison population in its compliance with environmental justice requirements.

Notably, even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not included the incarcerated population in its environmental justice policies. In the early 2000s, EPA investigated prisons in mid-Atlantic states, discovering violations such as air and water pollution and toxic waste spills. Since the investigation, EPA’s “interest in prisons and prisoners has waned,” says Bradshaw.

But serious health problems at correctional facilities persist. For example, numerous prisons have documented instances of contaminated drinking water, which can lead to bacterial infections. In facilities close to toxic coal and waste dumps, incarcerated individuals have developed respiratory conditions, skin irritations, gastrointestinal problems, and other ailments. And those incidents are not isolated. Bradshaw explains that the federal government has routinely placed prisons on abandoned mines, toxic waste sites, and military bases.

Bradshaw argues that the nation’s prison population has been “left unprotected” due to lack of oversight by state and federal agencies. She uses correctional facilities in both St. Louis and central Michigan as case studies. Those facilities are each located a mile and a half away from former industrial plant sites. According to researchers, the sites continue to be sources of water and air pollution.

Despite evidence of contaminated local waters, correctional facilities in St. Louis relied on the city water supply as late as 2015. According to incarcerated individuals who filed a lawsuit against the facilities, they have had to drink water with a toxic chemical makeup “up to eleven times higher than the EPA’s safety threshold.”

To seek redress for water contamination, incarcerated individuals must challenge toxic prisons in court—but these lawsuits are often unsuccessful. For example, plaintiffs that file claims under the Eighth Amendment must demonstrate that the prison officials intended to punish inmates. In the St. Louis case, the court held that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee cleaner air or water than what the general public enjoys. Moreover, the court found that prison officials reasonably relied on state and federal agency officials, who deemed the water to be safe for humans.

To avoid the litigation obstacles associated with the Eighth Amendment, plaintiffs could instead file under the Clean Water Act. Under this federal law, plaintiffs use scientific tests to show that water contamination exceeds state and federal standards. Although these objective standards are often easier to prove compared to a prison official’s intent, lawsuits based on the Clean Water Act are complex and require expert witnesses and counsel. The necessary resources, Bradshaw explains, are often unavailable to litigants.

In light of those litigation challenges, Bradshaw urges grassroots environmental organizations to advocate on behalf of improved environmental conditions in the nation’s prisons. In particular, Bradshaw recommends that activists and organizers should continue to demand that EPA recognize in its policies that the incarcerated are a vulnerable population. EPA has failed to do so, although it has created a mapping tool that identifies toxic prisons across the country.

Bradshaw also suggests the need for more research into toxic prisons. Over the last five years, federal and state agencies have brought over 1,000 informal actions and over 70 formal actions against correctional facilities that violated safe-water standards. But those numbers understate the problem, says Bradshaw, because these data only included 1,065 correctional facilities out of nearly 6,000 in the United States. Of available data, 17 percent of prisons and jails have violated federal environmental laws.

With a new national administration in office, perhaps the government soon will include toxic prisons in its environmental justice efforts. The Biden–Harris Administration has already pledged to prioritize environmental justice in its early climate change initiatives. It remains to be seen whether the Administration will also include the prison population in its push for environmental justice.