EPA adds online environmental justice map focused on prisons

EPA adds online environmental justice map focused on prisons

The Environmental Protection Agency’s online environmental justice map has added a layer that displays the locations of American prisons, showing their positions relative to potential environmental trouble spots. Advocates for prisoner rights are hailing what they see as a promising tool that will help them document environmentally-caused health issues in prisons that are already built as well as possibly prevent the building of other prisons in areas that would jeopardize the health of prisoners, reports Nonprofit Quarterly.

“It’s huge,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, co-founder of the Prison Ecology Project. “It’s one of those things that I think if you just look at it quickly, it seems almost mundane to have added a layer to this existing map. … But in the presence of what we’ve been doing over the last three years, of building this national movement and organizing model of looking at prisons from an environmental justice perspective … this is pretty massive.”

The prison layer was added this summer to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (or EJSCREEN) by the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice. The 24-year-old office’s mandate is to advocate and be a resource for vulnerable communities, primarily those of color and with low incomes, which are most likely to suffer from poor environmental conditions. 

“People (on the outside) generally aren’t thinking of prisons and jails as environmental problems or as places where people have legitimate concerns about the environment,” said Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, in an interview for Earth Island Journal’s recent investigative piece, “America’s Toxic Prisons: The Environmental Injustices of Mass Incarceration.”

Across the country, prisoners have been subjected to poor conditions — sometimes fatal — with health risks ranging from contaminated water sources to living in buildings with dangerously high temperatures. In an example highlighted by the Earth Island Journal, inmates at a Texas prison were instructed to deal with the punishing and dehydrating high temperatures by simply drinking a lot of water; it turned out the water they had been given to drink — for 10 years — was contaminated with arsenic.

The Earth Island Journal investigation, done in conjunction with Truthout, found that at least 589 state and federal prisons in the U.S. are within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site, with 134 of those within one mile. 

The EPA’s prison mapping tool and the resulting analysis could help improve the situation.

“Instead of reacting to abuses in existing prisons or responding to proposals for new prisons, we can actually initiate campaigns,” Tsolkas told Truthout, “and say, ‘Hey, this overpopulated prison has documented issues with x, y, and x. So we can create campaigns basically using the EJSCREEN tool.”

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Companies: U.S. EPA

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