Prison Ecology Project

The mission of the Prison Ecology Project is to map the intersections of mass incarceration and environmental degradation, and create action plans to address the multitude of problems found there.

The Prison Ecology Project addresses issues such as: damage of sewage and industrial waste from overpopulated and under-regulated prisons into to water ways; threats to listed species by the ongoing construction and operation of prisons in remote, environmentally-sensitive rural areas; and environmental justice concerns regarding prisoners, staff and surrounding communities.

Check out our partners at The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons



Background on mass incarceration and the environment

The EPA and various state agencies have been finding violations at prisons all across the country for putting ecosystems, endangered species and human health in danger, due largely to the tendency of prison facilities to be massively overcrowded beyond what they were permitted for.

The EPA Region 3 Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice has said this about prisons:

[C]orrectional institutions have many environmental matters to consider in order to protect the health of the inmates, employees and the community where the prison is located. Some prisons resemble small towns or cities with their attendant industries, population and infrastructure.

Supporting these populations, including their buildings and grounds, requires heating and cooling, wastewater treatment, hazardous waste and trash disposal, asbestos management, drinking water supply, pesticide use, vehicle maintenance and power production, to name a few potential environmental hazards.

And the inmate training programs [factories] offered at most institutions also have their own unique environmental how they are faring. From the inspections, it is clear many prisons have room for improvement.    Source

This statement was published in 2002. The following are examples of documented EPA violations from 1999 – 2011, with links embedded to EPA press releases for details.

Yet, when asked by PEP for documents regarding current enforcement of violations, the response of an EPA Region 3 representative in January 2015 was, “[They] haven’t done a prison inspection in several years now.”

The PEP is organizing to change this.

The violations in EPA Region 3 represent a small fraction of what is of the prison pollution occuring (a mere few dozens out of 5000+ prisons and jails in the US.)

Violations of these sorts have been seen as isolated incidents in many of EPA’s 10 regions.

One such case came to a head in September 2014, where the Black Warrior Riverkeeperreached a successful settlement in their water pollution lawsuit against the operator of Donaldson Correctional Facility’s sewage treatment plant, after 10 years of collecting samples to prove the prison pollution occurring.[See photo at right].

On April 2015, the defendants from the sewage treatment plant defaulted on their settlement agreement, so the river is still in danger. It’s little surprise to learn that the prison responsible for the contamination is still at double its population capacity.

Similar cases to this have been documented across the country for decades. Here’s a glimpse:

  • Since 2000, eight of California’s 33 state prisons have been cited for major water pollution problems. Folsom State Prison, originally built in 1880 on 1,200 acres, was fined $700,000 in 2000 for a massive 700,000 gallon sewage spill into the adjacent American River.
  • A separate water pollution source from the Old Folsom prison is toxic waste from the old scrap metal area, drum storage area, industrial manufacturing area, and the firing range.
  • At the California Men’s Colony state prison (CMC) in San Luis Obispo, a wastewater system spilled over 220,000 gallons of raw sewage in 2004, for which CMC was fined $600,000 by the regional water quality control district. This followed a citywide record of 450 documented spills in the previous five years – one quarter of which were attributed to CMC. Some of the effluent flowed into nearby Morro Bay, a protected wildlife sanctuary.
  • In Virginia, environmental officials discovered effluent from the 540-prisoner Virginia Correctional Center for Women in the adjacent James River. The foam contained phosphorus at 22 times the average level. When excessive, it results in algae blooms and the attendant oxygen starvation of aquatic life. Such a bloom was discovered at Hopewell in June 2006, along the James River. Although Virginia banned the use of phosphates in home laundry detergents in 1987, it permitted commercial laundries, including prisons, to continue to use it
  • In 2004, DOE fined WDOC $60,000 for falsifying water pollution reports regarding an incident occurred at the McNeil Island Correction Center, where from 1999 to 2002, 20 of 36 water pollution reports were falsified. The reports covered up excess fecal coliform levels in the daily 350,000 gallon wastewater byproduct that was generally not fit for discharge into Puget Sound.
  • Walla Walla State Penitentiary (WSP) has been an ongoing source of documented pollution for over 20 years. Hazardous waste emissions from the facility have been adversely affecting 17 groundwater wells serving over 10,000 citizens within two miles downstream, as well as excessive toxic metal waste including zinc, copper, and mercury at 100 times the permitted level for discharge, stemming from the onsite factory.

The info in this list is from article was compiled by Prison Legal News, a partner project of PEP. We are working with editors to gather updates on this data, with a goal of creating a 50-state database of prison pollution.

Prison is also an environmental justice nightmare. Below are some examples which illustrate the need for recognizing prisoners in environmental justice policy and implementation strategy:

  • New Orleans, Louisiana jail post-Katrina – This facility became an example of how ill-prepared county-run prisons are to handle emergency situations, sparking a report by the ACLU on the terrible reality that unfolded for prisoners after the storm in 2005. “The prisoners inside the Orleans Parish Prison suffered some of the worst horrors of Hurricane Katrina,” said Eric Balaban, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Because society views prisoners as second-class citizens, their stories have largely gone unnoticed and therefore untold.”
  • Escambia County, Florida jail flood – In May 2014, another flood-related disaster at a county-run jail on the Gulf Coast illustrated that very little had been done since the lessons of Katrina to address the dangers of incarcerating people in increasingly flood-prone areas. At the Escambia County jail in north Florida, severe rain led to flooding in the basement of the facility that in turn resulted in a gas leak and explosion that killed two prisoners and injured many others.
  • Chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia – Another risk to prisoners, who are often located in industrial wastelands where the likelihood of pollution disasters can contaminate the water supply, was demonstrated at the South Central Regional Jail in Charleston after a major coal-processing-related chemical spill occurred in January 2014 when a storage tank ruptured. Prisoners were affected by the water contamination to a greater extent than many other local residents, as they were exposed to the contaminated water for longer periods without proper notice.
  • Sing Sing Correctional Facility and the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York – A 2012 legal proceeding filed by environmental groups in the Hudson Valley of New York during an administrative hearing of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission exposed a completely insufficient emergency evacuation plan for prisoners held at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, again illustrating why this population fits the criteria of an EJ demographic.
  • Rikers Island jail, New York City – The Rikers Island jail complex has become notorious for its location on a toxic waste landfill site where lawsuits have been filed against the facility by employees who have become ill due to the conditions there. As a result of this landfill, there have been frequent methane gas explosions on the site. In addition, the lack of an evacuation plan during Hurricane Sandy illustrated the increased potential for disaster at this facility.
  • Coal ash dump in LaBelle, Pennsylvania – Surveys and reports from prisoners at the State Correctional Institute-Fayette have indicated ongoing problems related to sickness among prisoners who are exposed to airborne coal dust. The prison houses over 2,000 prisoners, was built on top of a former coal mine and sits adjacent to a 506-acre coal ash dump owned and operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting (MCC). The dump receives ash waste from coal-fired power plants throughout the region. Before it became a fly ash dump, it was one of the world’s largest coal preparation plants, which left over 40 million tons of coal waste. MCC recently renewed its permit to dump 416,000 tons of coal ash per year at the site. Coal ash contains mercury, lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, cadmium and thallium. “In short, coal ash toxins have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality,” according to a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility.
  • Thirteen Colorado prisons in contaminated area – Cañon City is the location of nine state and four federal prisons and penitentiaries. It’s also known for longstanding water quality problems related to the mining and processing of uranium. Liquid waste laced with radioactive material and heavy metals was discharged into 11 unlined ponds from 1958 to 1978. Those were replaced in 1982 with two lined impoundments, and after well tests in Cañon City showed contamination, the uranium mill site was put on a national list for Superfund cleanups. Samples collected from four wells north of the mill in October 2011, analyzed at outside labs, indicated trichloroethene concentrations of 1,800 parts per billion, 1,200 ppb, 490 ppb and 386 ppb. The EPA standard is 5 ppb. The wells were up to 360 times the federal health limit. “Vapors can seep up through the soil and get into homes. Then you have not only a drinking issue but an inhalation risk,” EPA spokeswoman Sonya Pennock said. But the cleanup isn’t expected until 2027.
  • Valley Fever at Avenal and Pleasant Valley State Prisons, California – Lawsuits and news reports have repeatedly noted that people imprisoned in areas prone to valley fever (resulting from drought, over-development and increased temperatures) are at elevated risk of contracting that disease due to constant exposure and abysmal healthcare options available in prisons.[8] Valley fever has claimed the lives of more than 50 prisoners and sickened thousands of others. A federal court ordered the removal of thousands of prisoners from the Avenal State Prison and Pleasant Valley State Prison due to concerns about valley fever. “Medical studies have shown that Filipinos, Blacks, Hispanics and people suffering from diabetes and HIV are more susceptible to valley fever, meaning that prisoners in the Central Valley – where 16 of California’s 33 adult prisons are located – are especially vulnerable. For example, blacks comprise just 6.6% of California’s general population but make up 29% of the state’s prison population.”
  • Arsenic in Texas and California water supplies – This is a reoccurring story, where prisons such as Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California and the Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota, Texas are built in areas with contaminated water supplies and prisoners are forced to endure health impacts due to these environmental conditions.
  • Prisons built on military Superfund site in California – The Victorville Federal Correctional Complex was built on the site of one of the Weapons Storage Areas (WSA) for the former George Air Force Base in California, Superfund ID: CA2570024453. The DOD and Air Force did a federal-to-federal transfer of Parcel K to the BOP, a site which contains the former South WSA. The Victorville Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) consists of three facilities: FCI Victorville Medium I, Medium II and United States Penitentiary-Victorville. A federal-to-federal transfer was also done with Castle Air Force Base’s WSA where the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Atwater was built “on a part of the base near where munitions were kept and where investigators from the Air Force Safety Center suspect nuclear weapons were maintained and stored.”
  • Toxic and hazardous site for immigrant detention in Tacoma, Washington – The Northwest Detention Center, a privately-operated prison designed to house 1,575 immigrants, is adjacent to a Superfund site known as Project Area #3 of the Tacoma Tar Pits (EPA ID# WAD980726368). The location is also in a designated volcanic hazard zone.
  • Water contamination in prisons nationwide – A report published by Prison Legal News in 2007 highlighted seventeen states, including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio and Washington, where water contamination in prisons and their surrounding communities had been reported to cause problems including illness (such as Legionnaire’s Disease) and various environmental violations. The report concluded that protections under the Clean Water Act may be difficult for prisoners, as such problems are often complex, requiring water testing and expert witnesses to prove a claim, neither of which are likely to be available to the average pro se prisoner litigant. According to author John Dannenberg, “As the environmental movement in the United States grows, it may be time to make the connection to environmental degradation caused by mass imprisonment.”

See HRDC’s EJ 2020 comment for more details, links and sources on environmental justice and prisons


Industrial pollution and environmental justice related prisons is not just a problem in the U.S:

“Check pollution around Taloja Jail, orders High Court (India)”

“Pollution, Prisons, Sickness, and Raves: Inside Russia’s ‘City of the Colorful Sky'”

[Please get in touch with other international examples.]

Policy Papers and Documents