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From the Guest Editor

Don’t Look Away

For many people in the United States, prisons are invisible. How is this possible, given that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2.3 million people behind bars?

The answer is that prison, as an institution, relies on its own invisibility – its ability to disappear human beings.

Prisons are often stowed away in isolated rural areas and small towns. A large number of people in this country, particularly those who aren’t part of the communities most impacted by incarceration, simply avert their eyes. As activist and scholar Angela Davis writes: “The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of capitalism is deposited.”

In addition to being a powerful metaphor, the depositing of “detritus” should also be considered in literal terms. Prisons are sites of some of the worst environmental injustices in this country. Over the past year, Truthout and Earth Island Journal have undertaken an investigation that documents some of these injustices, underscoring the ways in which the prison industrial complex devastates the environment and takes life-threatening tolls on human health.

Environmental issues are too often portrayed as causes that are separate from the core oppressions embedded in this country’s foundation. Racism, economic injustice, anti-lgbtq oppression, ableism, sexism, and other forces take a backseat in many environmental discussions, if they aren’t completely ignored. But it is impossible to talk about prisons without confronting these oppressions. It should also be impossible to talk about environmental degradation without addressing oppression and state violence. The rise of the environmental justice movement has given us a framework for understanding the destruction of the environment in the context of the Black, Brown, and poor communities it affects the most.

As our investigation (“America’s Toxic Prisons”) shows, it’s critical that conversations around environmental justice include prisons – both for the environmental degradation they cause, and the environment-based health threats they pose to those trapped inside them.

Prisons are often located on contaminated sites like landfills and former mines. At least 589 prisons sit within three miles of a Superfund site. Meanwhile, they spill contaminated water, including raw sewage, into local waterways, endangering surrounding communities. While prisons themselves are hidden away, their toxicity spreads far beyond their walls.

Our investigation demonstrates what many incarcerated people have always known: Prisons are toxic.

As more people become aware of the links between environmental degradation and incarceration, exciting opportunities emerge for intersectional activism.

Organizers are now building brave coalitions to confront the violence being waged against humanity and the planet. Capitalism’s “black holes” are, increasingly, sites of key struggles for justice on all fronts. It’s time for all of us to recognize that and that health, life, and freedom from toxicity should be human rights for all.

Maya Schenwar signature graphic


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