400 Years Blog #19 – Incarceration and Toxic Environments

Posted in: Leader's Blog
In my last two blogs I explored how environmental dangers disproportionately threaten schools and neighborhoods where many people of color live. This blog focuses on environmental threats to those sent to prison. Many of you know that people of color are incarcerated at close to five times the rate of whites. But few know that prisoners are regularly threatened by contaminated water, sewage spills, and polluted air.
For example, a publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council called out the State Correctional Institution in La Belle, Pennsylvania. Inmates there suffer from high rates of rashes, vision loss, respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal tract problems, thyroid disorders, and cancers. Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center blamed this on the 40 million tons of coal waste and slurry ponds surrounding the prison. (See No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette, 2014)
Some prisoners “lucky enough” to get outside prison walls on work release cleaned up tons of noxious sludge covering beaches and estuaries thanks to BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. Authorities directed inmates to shovel oil-soaked sand into black trash bags six-days a week in sweltering heat. Cleanup crews were almost entirely people of color. This prompted then NAACP President Ben Jealous to ask why Black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”
But one very dangerous “growth industry” inside prisons is defended by authorities as an environmental solution to e-waste – the harvesting of discarded electronics full of lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, barium, and chromium. We toss away 350,000 cell phones and 130,000 computers daily. Where many see an environmental mess, the private contractor UNICOR sees a business opportunity. Cheap prison labor, combined with a disregard for environmental regulations, reaps the company great profits. As Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, explains, UNICOR is a “toxic high-tech sweatshop hidden from view behind prison walls.”
Inmates, often without appropriate protective clothing or equipment, are exposed to materials that can cause anemia, high blood pressure, respiratory illness, reproductive damage, and organ failure. Even though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration charged the Bureau of Prisons with “willful” and “plain indifference” to worker health and safety, this sort of inmate exploitation continues to occur across the country. The danger of e-waste is relatively new, but as I’ll explore in the next blog, the abuse of inmate workers has a long history.
• Lesson #77: Prisons, which are filled with about 40% people of color, are generally environmentally unhealthy environments.
• Lesson #78: Some prisons are built on or near environmental hazards.
• Lesson #79: Dangerous reclaiming and recycling work done by prisoners is promoted as a “green environmental solution” to electronic waste.
• Lesson #80: Those living near prisons also often suffer from the environmental damage done to local aquifers and soil contamination.
• Lesson #81: Health care delivery systems in prisons, generally of poor quality, are often unprepared to deal with additional serious health conditions caused by environmental toxins.
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