(Credit: Mission de l'ONU au Mali - UN Mission in Mali)

The disturbing link between environmental racism and criminalization

How powerful institutions are criminalizing populations by locking people up and deeming them undeserving of clean air, water and healthy housing.

The United States of America has the largest prison system of any nation on Earth, the largest number of prisoners of any country, and one of the highest percentages of imprisoned persons of any nation.


As of this writing there are more than 2 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, jails, immigration prisons and other "correctional" facilities in the United States; if all of those prisoners were housed in one location, it would constitute the fourth largest city in the nation.

While scholars have established that prisons and imprisonment show few signs of abatement in the U.S. and are sites of racialized and gendered violence, an emergent area of research that I work on reveals that the prison system is also a space where incarcerated persons and their allies struggle for environmental justice—a vision of change that views ecological sustainability as inseparable from social equity and democracy.

These battles are taking place because prisons and jails in the U.S. are institutions where people of color are overrepresented and are frequently built adjacent to or even on top of toxic waste sites, are inundated with air and/or water contamination, and are sources of hazardous waste generation.

One question this research has raised: how might these challenges be recast if we consider the phenomenon of environmental injustice as a form of criminalization?

In other words, since environmental injustice is frequently a process and product of state-sanctioned institutional violence against communities of color (in the form of polluted air, land, water and human bodies), then what are the implications of reframing it as a practice of treating those populations as inherently criminal and deserving of punishment?

Moreover, how are the targets and survivors of environmental injustice/racism enlisted in ways that resist criminalization and support a positive vision of change?

I am exploring these questions through a consideration of how struggles inside and outside of prisons represent urgent and timely opportunities to rethink the possibilities of environmental justice and the problem of incarceration.

"Prison life"

Environmental injustice harms incarcerated persons as well as their families and ecosystems within, around, and beyond the prison's walls.

This occurs through both exposures to environmental threats and through the broader ways that harsh inequalities are produced across many social institutions in this nation (e.g., housing, education, health care, etc.) that intersect with the prison system and structure domination, constrain behaviors and freedoms, and that intensely criminalize certain populations.

This means that, expanding upon earlier environmental justice study approaches that tend to frame harmful environmental exposure in one-dimensional terms, prisons represent a way of understanding how particular bodies and communities can suffer the brutality of environmental racism as criminalization from birth through death: from living in toxic homes and residential communities that are also occupied by police forces, to attending schools that are inundated with toxics and occupied by police, to employment in toxic industries where workers are also routinely surveilled and disciplined, to incarceration in toxic prisons where criminalization and surveillance come with the territory.

This perspective reflects geographer Katherine McKittrick's concept of "prison life," which points to "the everyday workings of incarceration as they are necessarily lived and experienced, as a form of human life and struggle, inside and outside prisons."

Immigration injustice

An immigrant woman in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy shares her story. (Credit: Eric Garcetti/flickr)

The links between environmental racism and criminalization are palpable when we consider current U.S. immigration policy, which routinely brings the full force of institutional violence against migrants and refugees.

My research team found that there are numerous immigrant prisons located in sites that are plagued with extremely hazardous chemicals in the ambient air, land, and in water tables; chemicals that are known to be associated with developmental disorders, neurological damage, respiratory illnesses, and cancer.

These findings are of great concern to immigrant justice advocates because many children who have been separated from their families and parents by the government are imprisoned at many of these facilities.

As is the case at many immigration prisons around the nation, detainees routinely resist these harsh conditions through hunger strikes, sit-ins, and other means of protest and defiance against this brutal system.

In 2015, mothers imprisoned at the Karnes County Civil Detention facility in Texas went on a hunger strike, and one of their grievances was that the tap water was foul tasting because it had been heavily chlorinated, most likely in an effort to disinfect any pathogens or toxics related to the nearby heavy industrial fracking operations.

The mothers had been purchasing clean water at the prison commissary to maintain their health, but the authorities shut the store down, thus forcing them to drink the water they suspected was contaminated. This action was one of many institutional decisions the prisoners were resisting in order to achieve some semblance of health and justice.

Incarcerated near a coal ash dump

Genessee County jail during Flint lead crisis. (Credit: Brittany Greeson / The Ground Truth Project)

The connections among criminalization, climate injustice, and environmental injustice collide violently at State Correctional Institution Fayette in Labelle, Pennsylvania (a majority Black and Brown town), where prisoners (who are overwhelmingly working class and people of color) are forced to endure life next to a coal ash dump containing an estimated 40 million tons of coal waste and two coal slurry ponds.

The Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition undertook a year-long investigation of the health consequences of this exposure and revealed that an unusually high percentage of prisoners report declining health and symptoms and illness consistent with exposure to toxic coal waste, including cancer, respiratory, throat and sinus conditions, thyroid disorders, blurred vision, fatigue, hair loss, dizziness, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and much more.

Moreover, residents of the nearby town of LaBelle suffer from the exact same health conditions.

One inmate, Nicholas Morrissey, told investigators, "I can't even control my body anymore…My life has been completely changed in the last year…I went from an athletic and healthy person to a frail sickly man who can barely walk."

Richard Mosley is an African American man who did time at SCI Fayette and when he began experiencing illness symptoms and received no satisfactory response from prison officials, he took action by filing a lawsuit against the prison. Mosley was eventually released from SCI Fayette, having served his sentence.

Soon after his departure from prison, he joined an organization whose goal is to shine a light on the injustices at SCI Fayette and to seek real change. In a grassroots newsletter published in 2018, Mosley articulates his group's aims: "We, the Fayette Justice Health Committee of Put People First! PA are determined and steadfast in seeking justice for those who have been affected and are currently being affected by health and environmental hazards at SCI Fayette and in and near LaBelle, PA."

Challenging long-standing brutalities

(Credit: Fibonacci Blue/flickr)

These cases reveal how states and other powerful institutions expand the practice of criminalizing populations by locking people up and by deeming them unfit to breathe clean air, unworthy of drinking clean water, and undeserving of living in structures that sit atop clean soil.

These institutional phenomena signal that criminalization is frequently amplified and given greater force and impact through environmentally unjust practices.

No less disturbing is that the targeted poisoning and polluting of people behind bars reflects what has long been a practice of doing the same to "free" residential communities—suggesting that environmental racism and criminalization intersect and reinforce one another on both sides of the prison's walls.

Fortunately, prisoners and their allies are challenging these brutalities through a dynamic environmental justice movement that is producing a vision of environmental sustainability that is linked with ending mass incarceration.

David Pellow is a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara. His newest paper, " The Intersection of Race, Immigration Status, and Environmental Justice" (with Jasmine Vazin), in the journal Sustainability, explores the drivers, impacts, and solutions to the challenges of environmental injustice in America's immigrant prisons.

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