Fighting Toxic Prisons: Mass incarceration and Ecology
For as long as there have been prisons there have been people fighting against prisons. The ‘Prison Industrial Complex’ (PIC) is a term coined to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. The UK currently has the largest prison system of all Western European countries and is home to the most privatised prison system in Europe. Its cultural embrace of surveillance, policing and repressive policies are making it open ground for colonisation from North American and other companies seeking to exploit the custodial markets in the UK. This capitalist force is now extending to other repressive projects in Europe.
Thousands are criminalised, imprisoned and controlled, individuals and families are harmed and traumatised and poverty is perpetuated to allow a small minority of people to profit. The PIC sustains the sexist, racist, colonialist status quo and is a frontier of Western Capitalism. There are a hundred reasons to hate prisons, and now, folks on the edge between ecological struggles and movements against mass incarceration are working together to challenge the environmental injustices of prison society.
The connection between environmental injustices and prisons were first explored nearly three decades ago in the U.S. by prisoners and ex-prisoners that told multiple different tales of brown water in prisons that were labeled safe to drink by officials. More recently there has been extensive research into “problems that arise when prisons are sited on or near toxic sites as well as when prisons themselves become sources of toxic contamination” .
There are many documented instances of U.S. prisoners being forced to deal with toxic conditions; from massive dumps of toxic coal ash in Pennsylvania to the endemic spread of the potentially lethal valley fever in California. In Texas, high levels of arsenic in water consumed by prisoners is a reality. Now there are plans to build a federal prison on a mountaintop removal coal mine site. We are moving from blowing up mountains to mine coal to then incarcerating thousands of people in the debris and the toxic environment created by extreme energy extraction.
Meanwhile, in the UK we are facing the biggest prison expansion project in a generation. In November 2015, the British State announced their plans to build nine new mega-prisons across the UK. This has now been reduced to six, in addition to five new ‘community prisons’ for women. The announced locations include Full Sutton in East Yorkshire, Wigan in Greater Manchester, Rochester in Kent, Port Talbot in South Wales, and Leicester and Wellingborough in the Midlands.
Whilst they are being painted with promises of the possibility of prisoner reform, the most obvious aim of the new wave of prisons is to strengthen the relationship between the free market and the prison service. They are being designed with factories and workshops inside them to enable companies to exploit “a workforce of motivated prisoners who are looking to repay society and build outstanding business relationships with you” . The new mega-prisons will cage more than 1600 people each, putting them in the ranks of the largest in Europe. HMP Berwyn, the new prison in Wrexham, North Wales is designed to warehouse more than 2100 people, making it the second biggest prison in Europe.
The initial planning stages of these prisons have been revealing of the environmental conditions of the new and existing prison sites. Many are on brownfield sites, with long legacies of industrial and polluting uses. Some are existing prisons that will be torn down with mega-prisons built in their place. Interestingly, many are in economic regions where other traditionally polluting industries are declining such as the steel works in Port Talbot, which is the most polluted place in Britain, according to a study which finds 40 areas of the country breaching World Health Organization (WHO) limits on air pollution . It is an economic strategy to sell prisons to an area as a way to employ large numbers of people; except this economy is built on caging human beings. One prison governor described prisons as being “the last remaining growth industry”.
At every proposed location for a new prison, there are different local ecologies that are threatened by these huge construction projects. In Leicester, run-off from construction activities threatens the Grand Union Canal resulting in the death of aquatic organisms and aquatic and terrestrial vegetation which could, in turn, disrupt a locally important habitat corridor. Bats, hedgehogs, and toads will all face habitat destruction.
The Environmental Impact Assessment for the application stated that the prison proposes unacceptable pollution risks with foundation work creating pathways through which contaminants may be allowed to mobilise and migrate post-development, impacting controlled waters, site users and off-site residents. Ground gases and volatile vapours could enter proposed buildings and utilities infrastructure and present a potential health risk to site users. Contamination of the water supply and drainage systems could also occur from contaminated soils and groundwater.
Yet the project was approved, despite local organised resistance and an awareness of these environmental dangers. It is the role of anti-prison and ecological direct action movements to exert pressure on authorities in defense of ecosystems and future prisoners who will be the ones directly experiencing these toxic environments.
At Full Sutton in East Yorkshire, the planning documents reveal an even more shocking scenario. The site used to be a storage facility for nuclear weapons. It has been ranked as “A1”, as a high priority for inspection because of the radiological contamination on the site. Yet no investigations have been undertaken, and both construction workers and prisoners are at great risk, as well as the surrounding area if construction goes ahead. The site is also host to unexploded ordinances. There is a lack of capacity with the local sewer network to deal with the anticipated level of foul water from the prison, with suggestions that waste is either transported away at a huge environmental and economic cost. This land would not be suitable for a housing development and so it is not suitable for prisoners, however just as Angela Davies stated that prisons “disappear human beings” they also disappear land that is deemed as unsuitable for the rest of society.
Once built, prison environments themselves are highly polluting, with huge contracts with industrial cleaners, food sourced from industrial agriculture and the corporate food chain, and a huge market for the medical industrial complex and big pharma. No formal studies have been undertaken, but is clear for those of us that have been in prison that we are living in toxic environments. Many prisoners develop chronic illnesses as a result of the stress, horrendous lack of nutrition and medical neglect they experience.
Prisons are a key part of the state apparatus used to repress social movements and maintain a capitalist and ecologically-destructive society. Prisons are a specific response to a moment of instability and crisis in the capitalist system. The destabilization and containment caused by the prison industrial complex allows the state to perpetuate unpopular economic reforms that would not be possible in the face of strong resistance movements. 
We can see in global resistance to environmental destruction, how many of our comrades end up being arrested and imprisoned. Fighting to abolish prisons is fighting to abolish the society in which prisons and human supremacy over nonhumans and the land can exist.
Right now, with a young prison abolition movement in the UK, support is needed to use the tools and experience of those that have been fighting environmental harm for decades. We needed bureaucratic resistance at the planning stages of these new prisons, community mobilisation at every turn, and widespread and unrelenting direct action.
The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons who have been doing amazing organising work in the US will be touring with Community Action on Prison Expansion at the end of September across England and Wales. Find more information about the tour here: http://www.prisonabolition.org/toxic-prisons-tour-autumn-2017/
Learn about the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons here: https://fighttoxicprisons.wordpress.com/
2. One3One Solutions, the Ministry of Justice’s trading arm