Prisons and the Environment

Over the past decade, Earth Island Journal has been investigating the environmental injustices of mass incarceration, underscoring the ways in which the prison industrial complex devastates the environment and takes life-threatening tolls on human health, especially prisoners themselves and those living in nearby communities.

Our investigations have revealed that at least 589 prisons sit within three miles of a Superfund site and that prisons are often located on contaminated sites like landfills and former mines. Meanwhile, they spill contaminated water, including raw sewage, into local waterways, endangering surrounding communities. While prisons themselves are hidden away — given most of them are situated in isolated rural areas and small towns — their toxicity spreads far beyond their walls.

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Fighting a Prison atop an Appalachian Coal Mine

June 25, 2024 – They were incarcerated in Eastern Kentucky, far from home. Now free, they have returned to push back against a controversial prison project.

Katie Myers

Decarceration Advocates Craft Plans to Reimagine Rikers Island as a Renewable Energy Hub

March 7, 2023 – Can a place that’s become synonymous with injustice and suffering ever embody regeneration and growth?

Rachel Knopp

Terán’s Killing and Criminalization of the Right to Protest

March 1, 2023 – The right to protest is being increasingly criminalized in the US.

Maureen Nandini Mitra

Heat Waves Pose Deadly Threats to Incarcerated People and Prison Staff

August 19, 2022 – Corrections facilities concentrate hundreds or thousands of people in buildings that were designed without planning for extreme heat.

J. Carlee Purdum

Soaring Covid-19 Numbers at San Quentin Expose the Public Health Impact of Mass Incarceration

June 29, 2020 – Prisons and jails across the country are failing to adequately protect prisoners and staff from the pandemic.

Angela Sevin

Using Old Prisons to Empower Youth and Address Food Insecurity

January 8, 2018 – Turning old jails into employment hubs is challenging, but some groups are getting creative

EPA Adds Prison Locations to its Environmental Justice Mapping Tool

September 21, 2017 – EJ activists celebrate move as an advance in the struggle to recognize the environmental rights of prisoners

Zoe Loftus-Farren

Texas Prisoners Describe Nightmarish Conditions, Exposure to Floodwaters Following Harvey

September 8, 2017 – Superstorm takes toll on prison populations living in shadow of state's fossil fuel industry

‘Cruel and Unusual’: Texas Prisoners Face Deadly Heat and Contaminated Water

August 8, 2017 – Lawsuit alleges that prisoners must drink copious amounts of lead- and copper-tained water to cope with high temperatures

DOJ Withdraws Plan for Kentucky Prison on Mountaintop-Removal Site

June 30, 2017 – Proposed prison would have been terrible for prisoner health and local wildlife, say advocates

Forced to Endure Extreme Heat, Texas Prisoners Becoming Casualties of Climate Denial

June 12, 2017 – Dangerous prison conditions likely to worsen as heat waves intensify with climate change

Toxic Prisons and the Environmental Injustices of Mass Incarceration

June 1, 2017 – The environmental injustices of mass incarceration

Candice Bernd Zoe Loftus-Farren Maureen Nandini Mitra

Mass Incarceration vs. Rural Appalachia

August 24, 2015 – Feds want to build a maximum-security prison on top of a former mountaintop removal mining site in eastern Kentucky

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