Grantee Story Sparks Changes on Environmental Hazards in Prisons

For more than a year, a team at Earth Island Journal and Truthout investigated health hazards in prisons resulting from environmental issues. Some prisons are located on or near contaminated land, including landfills, hazardous waste sites and mines, leading to contaminated drinking water and unsafe air quality in some facilities. In some instances, prisons themselves are the source of pollution that creates unhealthy conditions for prisoners, those who work in prisons, and local residents.

With a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the team gathered FOIA releases from state and federal authorities and conducted on-the-ground reporting in California, Texas, and Pennsylvania. While it found substantial gaps in data, it also uncovered unhealthy conditions in multiple states, and found people with chronic health problems that likely were caused by environmental conditions in prisons.

The team also showed how climate change can make prison conditions worse. In Texas, where most prisons lack air conditioning and temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees, the state’s criminal justice agency advises staff to tell prisoners to drink more water, up to 2 gallons a day on hot days. But, the report notes, arsenic levels in the water have exceeded federal standards for years, leading a federal judge to order the state to truck clean water into prisons.

When the investigative report was published, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund cited it in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice demanding that the environmental conditions in the story be investigated and remedied. The Justice Department subsequently withdrew plans to build a new prison in Kentucky at a former mountaintop-removal mine site. The planned prison was identified in the story as a prime example of new prison construction in a location that would likely expose prisoners to unsafe, unhealthy conditions. Also in the aftermath of the story, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would add prison locations to its online environmental justice mapping tool.