Search

The invisible communities: EJ in the prison system

By Caitlin Martin, MESM '19

Punished for seeking clean water

Wayland Coleman, a prisoner serving a life sentence at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) in Norfolk, MA, began legally purchasing bottled water from the prison canteen after discovering that the tap water contained dangerous levels of manganese.[i] When consumed in large quantities, elevated levels of manganese can lead to neurological disorders. Prison guards were instructed by the Department of Correction not to drink the tap water and were provided bottled water for personal consumption. Prisoners at MCI-Norfolk, however, were expected to consume the tap water.


Soon after Coleman began purchasing bottled water for himself and his fellow inmates, he was threatened by prison staff for holding too much bottled water in his cell and was told to cancel his orders. When Coleman refused, he was placed in solitary confinement and issued a disciplinary report for having 14 cases of water, considered contraband.[ii] The U.S. Code defines contraband as weapons, controlled substances, phones, currency, or objects that threaten the safety of the prison or an individual.[iii] Coleman was literally punished for trying to reduce exposure to harmful toxins. He was trying to protect the health and well-being of his fellow prisoners and was punished for trying to do so.


This is an example of the type of environmental injustices 2nd-year MESM Jasmine Vazin studies with Professor David Pellow and the Global Environmental Justice Project. The Pellow lab uses research to increase the collective knowledge of environmental justice issues, hoping their findings will lead to actionable change. Most recently, the lab is examining environmental injustices in the United States prison system and detention centers to raise awareness about these issues and encourage greater systemic change.


“I contacted the Pellow lab because I wanted to gain practical research experience in environmental justice. After learning about the Prison Environmental Justice Project and the harm prisoners in the United States are exposed to, I wanted to explore whether these issues applied to immigrant detention prisons, as well. As a first generation American, immigration policy and migrant rights are of great importance to me.”

Jasmine Vazin, 2nd-year MESM student specializing in Conservation Planning, conducts research with the Global Environmental Justice Project.

The invisible communities

Problems like those at MCI are happening all across the country. Prisoners are treated as less-than and their voices and concerns are silenced. As Dr. David Pellow writes, “If water is life, then the widespread contamination of that most basic element provides clear evidence of the ecologically violent nature of prison life.”[i] Because of this, we can consider Wayland Coleman and his fellow inmates as invisible people.


Prisoners experience an environmental injustice because they are exposed to physical harm and lack the power or resources to remove themselves from these conditions. Invisible communities often do not have the ability to advocate for themselves, as was shown in the MCI-Norfolk case study. They also do not have access to legal representation and may face a language barrier. The definition of the “environment” in the environmental justice movement extends to more than just the natural environment. The environment includes the places where we live, work, play, learn, pray, and do time.[ii] The environment also extends to one’s personal body, health, and well-being.


Prisoners are just one example of the types of communities impacted by instances of environmental injustice. These invisible populations also include people of color[iii], Native Americans[iv], farm workers[v], and immigrants[vi], just to name a few. These communities of people are often overlooked and the negative impacts they are exposed to often go unnoticed.


Why does this happen? Why are certain groups of people denied basic protections and exposed to a disproportionate amount of health impacts and abuse? Case studies of environmental injustice highlight that patterns of implicit bias combined with a mix of structural, historical, and systemic racism lead to issues of environmental injustice.[vii] Additionally, as was seen in the Flint, MI water contamination crisis, under-enforcement of laws, more so than weak laws, leads to outcomes that deny equal protection for all individuals.[viii] There is also a general understanding that certain actions would not be able to occur in predominantly white communities because there would be greater uproar.[ix]


“This work is important because these health impacts can be irreversible; in order for change to occur, legal and policy efforts need to push for resolution as soon as possible. Our goal is to share our findings as widely as possible and encourage change from multiple political and legal angles. We sent our annual report and general findings to Assemblymember Monique Limon and Congressman Salud Carbajal. We also provide supporting information to Senator Kamala Harris’ office in the push to reinstate the EPA Environmental Justice office’s past projects examining prison systems at the federal level. We will continue to share our research with investigative media outlets so they can be used to file litigation and support legal advocacy groups.”


#EnvironmentalJustice #EJ #GEJP #prisons


References

[i] Pellow, D. et al (2018). Environmental Justice Behind Bars: Toxic Imprisonment in America. The Global Environmental Justice Project.

[ii] Pellow, D. et al (2018). Environmental Justice Behind Bars: Toxic Imprisonment in America. The Global Environmental Justice Project.

[iii] Bullard RD, Wright BH. Environmentalism and the politics of equity: emergent trends in the black community. Mid Am Rev Sociol. 1987;12(2):21–39

[iv] Lynch, M., & Stretesky, P. (2012). Native Americans and Social and Environmental Justice: Implications for Criminology. Social Justice, 38(3 (125)), 104-124. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41940950

[v] Gwen M. Pfeifer (2016) Pesticides, Migrant Farm Workers, and Corporate Agriculture: How Social Work Can Promote Environmental Justice, Journal of Progressive Human Services, 27:3, 175-190, DOI: 10.1080/10428232.2016.1196428

[vi] Pellow, D. et al (2018). Environmental Justice Behind Bars: Toxic Imprisonment in America. The Global Environmental Justice Project.

[vii] Targeted News Service. (February 17, 2017 Friday). Michigan Civil Rights Commission Report: Race and Racism Played Roles in Causing the Flint Water Crisis, and Both Blacks and Whites are Victims. Targeted News Service. Retrieved from Nexis Uni.

[viii] Dana, D. A., & Tuerkheimer, D. (2017). After Flint: Environmental Justice as Equal Protection. Northwestern University Law Review, 111(3), 879–890. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=122701835&site=ehost-live

[ix] Targeted News Service. (February 17, 2017 Friday). Michigan Civil Rights Commission Report: Race and Racism Played Roles in Causing the Flint Water Crisis, and Both Blacks and Whites are Victims. Targeted News Service. Retrieved from Nexis Uni.

[i] Pellow, D. et al (2018). Environmental Justice Behind Bars: Toxic Imprisonment in America. The Global Environmental Justice Project. http://www.es.ucsb.edu/gejp/sites/secure.lsit.ucsb.edu.envs.d7_gejp-2/files/sitefiles/publication/PEJP%20Annual%20Report%202018.pdf

[ii] Pellow, D. et al (2018). Environmental Justice Behind Bars: Toxic Imprisonment in America. The Global Environmental Justice Project.

[iii] Pellow, D. et al (2018). Environmental Justice Behind Bars: Toxic Imprisonment in America. The Global Environmental Justice Project.

Strategic
Environmental
CommUnication

BrenComm@bren.ucsb.edu

Bren Communication

Bren School of Environmental Science & Management
2400 Bren Hall, University of California, Santa Barbara CA 93106-5131