by John Zhao, '18
Recently, Stanford University announced its decision on prison divestment. The decision made is insufficient and Stanford remains invested in the prison industrial complex, a system of institutions that surveil, police, imprison, and exploit people. Perhaps you are wondering why this is relevant to this blog on sustainability. That is because this is relevant. The prison system - beyond the violations of human rights and dignity - is also a matter of environmental injustice. Environmental injustice manifests in multiple ways within the prison industrial complex.
Prisons often are built on environmentally toxic sites, exposing incarcerated people to environmental hazards. This summer, the EPA updated its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool to be able to overlay prisons with other sites, such as Superfund sites. One such analysis of prison siting found that “at least 589 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site [...] with 134 of those prisons located within just one mile.” Thus, incarcerated people are often trapped in facilities that expose them to serious environmental hazards without consent.
The case of valley fever in California prisons also compounds the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration inflicts on people of color, as highlighted in this article by Mother Jones. The fungi that causes valley fever is found mostly in the Central Valley, where 16 of 33 prisons in California are located. Moreover, people of color are more at risk of contracting life-threatening cases of valley fever compared to white people. As a result, the justice system is not only disproportionately incarcerating people of color but also exposing them to life threatening conditions.
Moreover, the prison system often fails to comply with health and safety regulations and subject incarcerated people, surrounding communities, and ecosystems to dire circumstances. Since 2000, 8 of California’s state prisons have been cited for polluting waterways with sewage. Similar cases can be found across the nation. It is not just the prison facilities themselves that are violating these standards; companies that provide services to prisons have also grossly mistreated inmates. Food service companies often prepare highly processed, unhealthy food that fails to provide sufficient nutrition for inmates. Beyond this, companies such as Aramark Correctional Services are notorious for serving unsafe food that have been infested with maggots and rats. This is a violation of incarcerated people’s right to clean and healthy food.
The solution is not to simply make prisons environmentally friendly and safe. Various prisons have made attempts to rebrand themselves as ecologically sustainable. These reforms may improve operations related to energy and water; some even incorporate “green-collar” work and training programs to reduce recidivism. Outside the context of prisons, I would support such initiatives to build up sustainable infrastructure and a green workforce. However, the use of these facilities to imprison people in inhumane conditions should not be ignored; greenwashed prisons are still prisons. That felons can be denied jobs should not be ignored. Incarceration tears people away from familiar environments, throws them into dangerous environments, and - if they do get out- releases them back into society struggling to assimilate. From the perspective of social sustainability, the prison industrial complex pulls people away from families, making it difficult to build sustainable communities.
Prison labor is perhaps the biggest driver of the prison industrial complex. In many cases, the government and private corporations rely on incarceration for a source of cheap labor. Prisoners are often paid far less than minimum wage, often at rates less than $1/hour. The State of California relies heavily on prison labor in order to fight fires in its conservation camps under Cal Fire, saving the state $90-100 million a year. In 2014, when California federal judges ordered a program to release more prisoners early, “lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.”
The link between prisons and environmental justice is clear. Environmental injustices compound the damage already inflicted on incarcerate people, through relocation to toxic sites, health and safety violations, and labor exploitation. Environmental injustice will fuel incentive for perpetuating the prison industrial complex and exploitable prison labor. It is hard to imagine that a world that follows the Principles of Environmental Justice would include the prison industrial complex.
Stanford: you do not get to claim to be a leader in sustainability if you remain invested in the prison industrial complex. Listen to SU Prison Divest and divest from private prison corporation stakeholders, prison support industries, and prison labor beneficiaries.
Organization (Bay Area): Critical Resistance http://criticalresistance.org/
Organization: Prison Ecology Project https://nationinside.org/campaign/prison-ecology/
Infographic: Prison and Climate Change https://floodthesystem.net/infographic-prison-and-climate-change/
Readings: Prison Abolition Syllabus http://www.aaihs.org/prison-abolition-syllabus/
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