An Introduction to Prison Ecology

By Amber Berg

This article was published in the Oct. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.

What is Prison Ecology?

Prison ecology is the intersection between mass incarceration and environmental issues. In other words, it examines the relationship between prisons and nature: the environmental issues that occur within and around prisons and how they impact inmates and the surrounding environment. It emerged from the 2014 launch of the HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project, which aims to document the issue of prison ecology and then “do something to change it,” according to its founder and the executive director of HRDC, Paul Wright. Wright experienced this issue firsthand when he was serving time in the Washington State McNeil Island prison; there he faced environmental issues firsthand, such as polluted drinking water, which were overlooked or brushed under the rug by prison officials. Essentially, prison ecology boils down to the problems that arise when prisons are located near or on environmentally hazardous or toxic sites, or when prisons become hazardous or environmentally degrading because of their operations or lack of maintenance (Bernd et al. 2017). This article serves to fill the gap in literature on prison ecology by connecting the dots between the other justice movements it stems from: environmentalism, environmental justice, and prison reform.

Prison ecology is an unsuspected issue because, as Wright said, “people generally aren’t thinking of prisons and jails as environmental problems or as places where people have legitimate concerns about the environment.” The “tough on crime” rhetoric and the siting of prisons out of public sight has contributed to people overlooking the well-being of prisoners. As the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western put it, “Imprisonment makes the disadvantaged literally invisible,” which relates both to these individuals’ lack of political power and public visibility (Guo 2016). People typically think of corporations as the big polluter and the government as the entity who will clean it up, but by choosing where to build prisons and allowing them to become sources of toxic waste, the government is to blame for the environmental and health issues prisoners face (Bernd et al. 2017).

Prisons and the Environment

What many people may not realize is that prisons have harmful impacts on the environments they are built on. The Prison Ecology Project’s first case was to prevent a maximum-security federal prison from being constructed in a Letcher County, Kentucky town where there was once a coal mine. The Department of Justice has since withdrawn its plans for the prison and cancelled the money it budgeted for the its construction. One major concern of this proposed project was the destruction of 700 acres of habitats for endangered species, like the Indiana and gray bats. The Federal Bureau of Prisons conducted a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, but has since only claimed that the prison would not result in “significant impacts to vegetation, wildlife and threatened and endangered species (Poon 2015; Williams 2017).

The effects that prisons have on their surrounding environments has yet to be fully – or even extensively – explored, though some journalists and researchers have found that many prisons neglect the environment as part of its operations. For example, in 2006, it was found that Alabama prison facilities were dumping twice the amount of raw sewage – including human waste and toxic chemicals – than what is allowed by the EPA into the state’s waterways. At New York’s Riker’s Island Jail, which is also a toxic waste landfill site, pigs were once housed for slaughter, and “copious amounts” of rodents were killed with poisonous gas. Additionally, the number of inmates housed in the confined spaces of a prison lead to overcrowding that often results in the prison becoming a major source of pollution (Poon 2015; Williams 2017).

A Sierra Club article has reported that in California, a state that is well-known for its environmental stewardship, at least 8 of its 33 state prisons were cited for water pollution issues between 2000 and 2015. Even the LEED certified Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State – another “green” state – was found dumping sewage into public waterways for over 25 years (Slater 2015). If these two environmental leaders among the nation’s 50 states have prisons that are harming the environment, it is likely that the cases are just as bad, if not worse, in U.S. states where the environment is of little concern and prisons are seen as economic drivers. This indicates a need for greater oversight and stricter regulations on prisons from environmental agencies.


Prison Ecology and Environmental Justice

Understanding Environmental Justice

To fully understand prison ecology, it is important to have an understanding of environmental justice because prison ecology is inherently an environmental justice issue. Environmental justice is the concept that disadvantaged social groups, particularly communities of color, are disproportionately exposed to adverse health hazards due to poor environmental conditions (Boer et al. 1997). Communities of color and low-income communities already face critical disadvantages in their communities, including inadequate public schools that reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline, failing police services, lack of job opportunities with livable wages, and inaccessible quality health care, among others (Putnam 1993). Environmental injustice – once dubbed “environmental racism” – is just another barrier that prevents low-income individuals and people of color from living their highest quality of life. Environmental justice, on the other hand, seeks to undo environmental injustices through an approach that is described by researchers as “the development of a broad, multi-faceted, yet integrated notion of justice that can be applied to both relations regarding environmental risks in human populations and relations between human communities and non-human nature” (Schlosberg 2007).

In 1982, after a nonviolent civil disobedience movement protested the local siting of a toxic polychlorinated biphenyl landfill in a predominantly black area in North Carolina, environmental injustice became an area of concern for activists. This event persuaded the U.S. General Accounting Office to examine environmental injustice after they found that three out of every four commercial hazardous waste landfills in the Southeastern United States were located within communities that had a majority black population (Godsil 1991).

Cases of environmental injustice often arise when pollution sites like landfills and highways are located too close to low-income neighborhoods or communities of color. Typically, there is a lack of government aid when these neighborhoods do face environmental issues. It is debated whether these are intentional or unintentional acts of discrimination, but intention does not matter when the disparity exists nonetheless. This disparity is evidenced by numerous studies and lived experiences of these communities. For example, a 1990s study in Los Angeles found that working class and ethnic communities were likely hosts of hazardous sites known as treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs) creating a substantial cause of concern among environmental justice advocates (Boer et al. 1997; Gosil 1991).

The argument that environmental injustice is unintentional typically examines the phenomenon of Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) Syndrome, which is when communities with greater financial influence and political power – typically white, middle to upper class communities – prevent the siting of ugly facilities and environmental hazards, such as TSDFs, landfills, highways, and so on in their neighborhoods (Godsil 1991). These facilities have to go somewhere though, and the result is often that those without much political power have to live with these sites as their neighbors and often face health, economic, and quality of life issues as a result. A relationship between toxic waste sites and prisons has been documented, and this relationship exists in part due to NIMBY Syndrome – no one wants toxic waste in their neighborhood, and very few are comfortable living near a prison either (Williams 2017).

The Relationship of Environmental Justice to Prison Ecology

The legacy of environmental injustice that is described above extends to the location of prisons (Bernd et al. 2017). These prisons, which are frequently located in or close to minority and low-income communities, are also often built on contaminated land that no one wants (Bernd et al. 2017). For instance, in 2003, Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution – Fayette was constructed near the fly ash dump of an abandoned coal mine, which immediately resulted in health issues for both inmates and prison staff (Williams 2017).

The formation of the Prison Ecology Project was inspired by the case of that Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, as well as the general pattern of prisons being located on environmentally degraded sites and the lived experiences of Wright, the Prison Ecology Project’s founder (Kirchner 2015). Earth Island Journal, in conjunction with the Prison Ecology Project, found that 589 federal and state prisons are located within a three-mile radius of Superfund sites; 134 of those are located within a one-mile radius (Bernd et al. 2017; Williams, 2017). A writer for the Sierra Club reported that most of the nation’s 5,000 prisons are located in remote and impoverished areas and a majority of their inmates are African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans; the author also speculates that if the Federal Bureau of Prisons took this into account when looking at the environmental justice impacts in an environmental impact statement, then “some prisons might never have been built.”

Not only are prisoners facing an unequal and concentrated exposure to environmental harms, but these prisoners are also disproportionately low-income or individuals of color. According to a 2016 Washington Post article, there are 1.6 million prisoners in state or federal prisons; those prisoners include 7.7 percent of the nation’s black men, but only 1.6 percent of the nation’s white men. This article also states that black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men and have a one in three chance of ending up in federal or state prisons. Although this article only looked at the differences between incarceration rates between blacks and whites, this article highlights a key issue of prison ecology: people of color are locked up more often than their white counterparts, and therefore face the health challenges that come with prison’s environmental conditions much more frequently than white people as well.

The Census Bureau includes prison populations in the data for the communities that they are located in. Wright believes that these populations should therefore also be included in the EPA’s environmental justice efforts, although currently they are not (Kirchner 2015). When the agency was writing their EJ2020 Action Agenda, Wright wrote to them asking “if we can recognize the problem with forcing people to live in close proximity to toxic and hazardous environmental conditions, then why are we ignoring prisoners who are forced to live in detention facilities impacted by such conditions?” (Kirchner 2015). Just as environmental justice pushes for a more healthy and safe community for low-income individuals and people of color, prison ecology activists want a healthier and safer environment for prisoners (Williams 2017).

Prison Ecology and Prison Reform

Although prison ecology is primarily an environmental justice movement with a focus on inmates as the disadvantaged community, it is also about the injustices inherent in our nation’s industrialized prison system. The head of the Prison Ecology Project – not the founder – Panagioti Tsolkas explained this by saying, “We are not proposing LEED certified prisons. That simply feeds the perception that you can just put solar panels on a prison and everything is okay. The real issue is that there is a problem with the industry at its core. What we are proposing is, the scale of the prison system is the problem. Piling thousands into a building, into a warehouse is a problem” (Williams 2017).

There are varied perspectives and levels of empathy for the inmates facing the issues. Professor of law Michael Mushlin told a journalist from ThinkProgress that “If we had a different attitude towards prisoners and saw them as not throwaways, but as human beings that need to be assisted, and in our interest to be treated humanely, things would improve” (Williams 2017).

A resident who lives just outside of the State Correctional Institute – Fayette in Pennsylvania remarked, with a slightly different perspective, that “…those people [in prison] have done something wrong or they wouldn’t be there, but Christ, all of those people don’t have a death sentence.” This same resident suffers from three different kinds of cancer that have all been attributed to the fly ash near the prison (Williams 2017).

Many inmates themselves have been reported to be scared of caring for themselves within these facilities, even hesitating to drink water or brush their teeth. Matthew Morgenstern, who is currently serving time at the previously mentioned Pennsylvania prison, believes that his Hodgkin’s lymphoma was also caused by the fly ash; he recovered after leaving the prison, but worried that he “will once again become sick” when he returned to the prison for violating parole in 2016. Two other prisoners in Navasota, Texas face extreme heat in the summertime and only have arsenic-laced water to drink from and bathe in. Thirty years into his life sentence at the California State Prison, another inmate contracted valley fever, which has been known to leave its victim with lifelong symptoms or even result in death. In regard to this issue of public apathy and the declining health of prisoners, one inmate, Bryant Arroyo, from another prison in Pennsylvania, said that “We are the minority and society doesn’t care” (Bernd et al. 2017; Williams 2017).

Although the issue of prison reform reaches far beyond the public’s perception of inmates and how they are treated, the Prison Ecology Project aims to address it by talking about it, keeping it as a focal point of its endeavors, and aiming to shift the public’s view of the prison system. Imprisonment is a highly controversial topic in the US and, although prison ecology does not directly address reforming prisons, its leading organization calls for changes to how prisons operate, and the movement highlights inherent issues in the nation’s prison system (Williams 2017; Prison Ecology Project 2018). To learn more about the Prison Ecology Project’s efforts and contribute to their work, visit their website, and to see where prisons and environmental hazards are located across the country, check out the EPA’s EJSCREEN mapping tool.



Bernd, Candace, Loftus-Farren, Zoe, and Nandini Mitra, Maureen. 2017. “America’s Toxic Prisons: The Environmental Injustices of Mass Incarceration.” Earth Island Journal.

Boer, J. Tom, Pastor, Manuel, Sadd, James L., and Snyder, Lori D. 1997. “Is There Environmental Racism? The Demographics of Hazardous Waste in Los Angeles County.” Social Science Quarterly 78, no. 4: 793-810.

Godsil, Rachel D. 1991. “Remedying Environmental Racism.” Michigan Law Review 90, no. 2: 394-427. doi:10.2307/1289559

Guo, Jeff. 2016. “America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality.” The Washington Post.

Kirchner, Lauren. 2015. “Environmental Justice for Prisoners.” Pacific Standard.

Poon, Linda. (2015). “How Mass Incarceration Takes a Toll on the Environment.” CityLab.

Prison Ecology Project. n.d. IndieGoGo. Accessed February 15, 2018.

Putnam, Robert D. 1993. “The Prosperous Community.” The American Prospect 4, no. 13.

Schlosberg, David. 2007. “Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature.” Oxford Scholarship Online.

Slater, Dashka. 2015. “Prison Ecology.” Sierra Club Magazine.

Williams, Kevin. 2017. “‘We are the minority and society doesn’t care’: The marriage between toxic waste and prisons.” Think Progress.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.
The cover image is “Gauze the closure of prison” by Arcaion, work is licensed in the public domain under (CC0  1.0 Universal). 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s