Earlier this month a Lake Worth-based organization, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), submitted a public comment to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that provides input on the agency’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda Framework, highlighting the lack of consideration for environmental justice among the millions of prisoners in the United States. The comment was co-signed by the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition, along with 92 other social justice, environmental and prisoners’ rights organizations from across the country.
HRDC has also announced the beginning of its Prison Ecology Project, an effort to organize at the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental pollution, and has launched a fundraising campaign to build off the recent EJ 2020 comment and fight against a new federal prison on endangered species habitat in southern Appalachia.
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“It’s encouraging to see the EPA attempting to increase the
effectiveness of protecting vulnerable communities that have been
overburdened by industrial pollution, but a significant component is
missing when impacts on millions of prisoners and their families are
ignored,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, coordinator of HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project.
HRDC’s comment elaborates on examples nationwide which illustrate a
clear need to protect prisoners as a population that faces extreme
environmental justice impacts. For example, prisons and jails built on
or near landfills, toxic waste dumps, Superfund cleanup sites and coal
mining sites, or that are vulnerable to natural disasters such as
flooding and environmental hazards like contaminated water. The comment filed with the EPA can be found online here.
According to the comment submitted by HRDC, there is overwhelming
evidence that the population of people in prison represents one of the
most vulnerable and uniquely-overburdened demographics in our nation.
The comment notes that prison populations are almost entirely low-income and that black, Hispanic/Latino and Native Americans are consistently overrepresented in every one of the 50 states.
Environmental permits which fail to meet the environmental justice
standards set in place 20 years ago may violate the Civil Rights Act.
Title VI of the Act explicitly prohibits discrimination by government
agencies that receive federal funds; if an agency is found in violation
of Title VI, that agency may lose its federal funding. The prison sector
should not be an exception.
“Those unfamiliar with the conditions in America’s prisons may balk
at our allegations but the EPA cannot claim to be among the uninformed,”
On February 5, 2015, Tsolkas conducted an interview with an EPA
representative from Region III who explicitly stated that environmental
justice guidelines have not been applied to prisoners for the purpose of
permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act because the EPA
uses data that fails to take prisoner populations into account.
EPA Region III, which encompasses the Mid-Atlantic, conducted an
initiative in which numerous prison inspections by the agency resulted
in enforcement actions between 1999 and 2011, ranging from issues
surrounding the disposal of hazardous waste to violations of air and
water standards, primarily due to prison overcrowding. The Department of
Justice’s Office of the Inspector General has also cited various
violations of health, safety and environmental laws, regulations and
Bureau of Prisons policies specifically related to industrial operations
within federal prisons.
Yet the EPA has never cited the health and safety of prisoners
exposed to such environmental conditions as a factor in prison
inspections or in the permitting of new facilities.
“Ironically, prisoners are frequently counted for the purpose of gerrymandering voting districts,”
observed HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “So why are we missing
the mark in terms of environmental protections for those forced to live
inside toxic prisons, such as facilities built on coal mining sites or
The Human Rights Defense Center,
founded in 1990, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting
human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal
News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and
analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and
criminal justice issues. PLN has around 9,000 subscribers nationwide and
operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org)
that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related
articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related
About the Prison Ecology Project:
Over the past six months HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project
has been conducting extensive research, public records requests,
interviews and reviews of Environmental Impact Statements and
Environmental Assessments to understand how environmental justice
criteria has been applied to prisoner populations, and how criminal
justice and environmental issues intersect.