Fighting Toxic Prisons: Restoring Land and Lives

The following is an interview with Craig Gilmore, Emily Posner, Sylvia Ryerson, Judah Schept and Panagioti Tsolkas.

In 1999, Critical Resistance entered the campaign to fight the Delano II prison in California’s Central Valley. This was the first time that organizers for abolition and organizers in the environmental movement came together. That campaign built a legacy of connecting damage to the environment to the fight against prison and jail building projects around the country. We wanted to reflect on this fight as the inspiration for current campaigns and to hear how these strategies and tactics have moved towards a focus on Environmental Justice as a framework. We also wanted to hear how the current fight against United States Penitentiary (USP) Letcher, a federal maximum-security prison slated for construction in Eastern Kentucky, is playing out on the ground. We print this article knowing that perhaps some of our most pitched battles in the arena of Environmental Justice are yet to come given the already serious impacts of climate change on poor communities and communities of color. We know that the state’s likely (and current response) will be abandonment and repression.

The Abolitionist: I wanted to get a little bit of framing based on the history of environmental justice and abolition paying specific attention to the Delano II campaign. How did those early campaigns lay the ground-work for current or future strategy in fighting prison siting?

Craig Gilmore (CG): In January 1999, CR had just finished its first conference and was looking for a campaign. The newly elected governor of California announced a new 5000 bed prison to be built in Delano. We knew from Ruthie Gilmore’s work that towns had been lobbying to get prisons based on the expected economic benefit the town would receive from a payroll, of at that point, $70 to $80 million dollars a year. We also knew that these supposed economic benefits were not a reality. The towns basically were competing for these huge projects that in fact were going to hurt them not help them. But we weren’t sure quite what to do with that information. Having birthday dinner one night in Berkeley with a couple of endangered species lawyers, they mentioned that the Delano II was going to have to go through a California Environmental Quality Act Review which would be an opportunity for everyone in the area that the prison was going to be built to learn about the negative impacts the prison would have, to comment on them and object if they wanted to. So, around the same time, we in the California Prison Moratorium Project had come up with this kind of odd working plan. It was based on the following (this is 1998 so you will have to excuse the simplistic analysis). Prisons disempower and impoverish poor people to the extent that those people barely have the capacity to fight back against further incarceration. There was, as far as we were concerned, a vicious cycle. As far as the prisons were concerned, there was a very healthy cycle in which they arrested people, incarcerated people, made them poorer, made them less politically powerful and made them more vulnerable to being further arrested and incarcerated. So we saw the revolving door of the prisons and the ever increasing growth of the prisons not as an accidental fault or collateral damage. Basically, we let our racial paranoia run wild and we saw this as part of an intentional plan. So, we thought, we have to intervene some way to stop the prisons from expanding to give people who are being arrested enough space to organize themselves to fight back more effectively. We started with the premise that prisons hurt almost everyone and if we could figure out how they are being hurt, we can bring them into a coalition. We approached this with the knowledge that most of these people are not suddenly racial justice warriors; they were fighting for their own self-interests. Those two things come together in the environmental review. So, we ran around and talked to people in existing prison towns and asked them what happened after the prison was built. We found that there were rises in domestic violence. We found that there were more kids expelled from school. We found out that there were all these things that we did not really associate with prisons. So, we could then go to Delano and say to the parent-teacher association “The prisons is going to screw up your schools”. We could go to the chamber of commerce and say, “The prison is going to hurt local businesses”. And again, none of these people signed on to a campaign against prisons because they believed the same sorts of things politically that we did. They were signing on for different reasons, but we could get them to come to these environmental quality public meetings to talk about their concerns about these issues that we had first told them about. Then it was a question of how do we organize people locally in the South San Joaquin Valley, which is where Delano is and where a lot of other prisons were sited in the 1980s and early 1990s. And the answer was the Environmental Justice Movement. We had talked to the endangered species people who kind of put us on this road. We found people who were in prison towns or towns with similar characteristics who had been fighting against toxic waste dumps. They had been fighting against polluted groundwater because of agricultural run-off. They had been fighting against pesticide drift and they had been doing so with some success. So the Delano II campaign involved a traditional environmental quality review that was not necessarily Environmental Justice focused, but we brought an Environmental Justice focus to it and tried to use it as a way to educate and mobilize people locally in Delano to get the city to oppose the prison. So, that is in broad strokes (and a failing 20-year-old memory) how that campaign happened.

The Abolitionist: Thanks Craig. I want to hear more about what is happening right now with a new federal prison in Eastern Kentucky. What narrative is the state using to justify the building of this prison? What does the resistance look like and what strategies are being used?

Sylvia Ryerson (SR): I can start with some context and then pass it off for the latest legal strategy. Two things have emerged in terms of mass incarceration in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia. Over the past quarter-century the region has become one of the most concentrated areas of rural prison expansion in the nation.  If USP Letcher is constructed, it will become the sixth federal prison built in the region since 1992, in addition to new state and private prisons. In terms of the narrative being used; it’s always been promoted as job creation. The regional coal industry has been in continued decline since the 1990s, which really reached a tipping point around 2010, with huge layoffs and a collapse of the industry as a regional employer. For over a century, coal dominated the local economy, creating a mono-economy of extraction.  As coal disappears, prison building has been promoted by state officials as a new “economic engine” that can “fuel” the economy. Many of these new prisons are located on formerly mined land—sites of toxicity, extraction and abandonment. It’s very much a narrative that as coal collapses, this is something new that can fill its place.

At the same time, there is a long history of resistance to prison building in the coalfields, in which Critical Resistance has played a pivotal role.  The very county in which USP Letcher is now sited for construction is home to Appalshop, a documentary arts and education center with a long history of social justice work. There has been an alliance between Appalshop and Critical Resistance that goes back to the 1990s, when Amelia Kirby and Nick Szuberla produced a film called “Up the Ridge” about the construction of a Supermax prison in Southwest Virginia.  Appalshop worked with Critical Resistance on distribution of that film and campaigns around it, and that film led to the “Calls from Home” radio show on Appalshop’s community station WMMT-FM.  “Calls from Home” is a weekly program that broadcasts messages from family members to their loved ones incarcerated in Central Appalachia, and CR has long been a supporter of the show.  So I think that to me there is a really special relationship between Critical Resistance and Appalshop, that has supported rural/urban coalition building against prison expansion for a long time.  In many ways this history provided a foundation for the most recent multi-sited organizing against USP Letcher.

The Abolitionist: Thank you Sylvia for that. It would be great to hear about some of the strategies and tactics you are using to fight Letcher.

Emily Posner (EP): I am happy to talk a little bit about the prison litigation which is happening in solidarity with the grassroots organizing that is going on locally. Twenty-one federal prisoners filed federal litigation in early November in Washington, DC to challenge the legality of the environmental impact statement that was issued. The statement needs to be issued in order for Congress to move forward with beginning the project. We brought several claims. One of the most important legal claims in my mind is that the inmates never received notice of this process. We in the free world were able to access the entire environmental impact statement on-line or go to by going to public libraries. However, those who are incarcerated, correctional officers and families of the correctional officers were not able to read this statement or participate in the democratic process of offering comment about if this project should move forward. Isolating and marginalizing incarcerated people in this manner is something that undermines our democracy.

Judah Schept (JS): I want to just add an addendum to Sylvia’s comments to the official narrative from the state around the Letcher County prison. Many of the comments that people submitted to the environmental impact study expressed opposition or hesitancy to the prison, but many are also in favor. In reading through the ones that are in favor, you clearly see precisely what Sylvia is suggesting in terms of an explicit narrative of rural economic development—particularly of job creation. But there is this other component to it, which is actually really interesting and which speaks a little bit to the counter narrative that Craig was talking about with the Delano campaign. The comments revealed that people are not just saying we need this prison because it’s going to provide 350 new jobs, but also there is a belief that this prison will make sure that we have more kids for our schools and more patients for our healthcare clinics and hospitals and other claims around infrastructure extension and development. The larger point that I am trying to make is that the narrative becomes not just about rural economic development, but the prison as central to the future of the community.

The Abolitionist: That is really interesting and goes directly counter to some things that Craig was saying regarding the effects or collateral damage, for instance an uptick in suspensions in schools or an uptick in health issues related to the prison being there. It is interesting to me that there is almost a 1 to 1 relationship between what is being touted and what we know actually happens when prisons are sited in rural areas. To this end, I am interested in thinking about framing prison building as a public health issue. CR has had some success in framing policing as a public health issue and recently the American Public Health Association (APHA) came out with a statement acknowledging that policing is a public health issue. I haven’t really seen that narrative arise around prison abolition or fights against prisons. While they are not the same thing, I am interested in thinking about how public health and environmental justice are related on this front.

EP: The Abolitionist Law Center did raise this issue in regards to the hidden cost of prisons on public services, including mental health services, and an uptick in domestic violence that occurs when prisons are sited. There are serious mental and emotional costs to those who work in prisons and to the medical community that bears the brunt of treatment. The Letcher facility is slated to be a maximum security facility and the conditions of a maximum security facility are extremely intense. So if we are talking about the greater public health impact we have to talk about what that means for correctional officers and their families. When we treat other human beings the way that people are treated in maximum security facilities what are the hidden costs on our communities?

The Abolitionist: That is a really good way to put it too “when we treat other human beings the way that we treat people in maximum security facilities.” While I think that we need to think holistically, this could also be a slippery slope.  Often times the narrative that is used to talk about the health effects on people who work in maximum security facilities or their families or guards and police officers more generally is about the danger of those professions. The people in our communities and the people who are locked up are so dangerous that it creates a health issue for cops or guards. This is a narrative that is trumped up by the media in terms of who gets locked up in max facilities falls into the realm of pitting different classes of prisoners against each other or framing people who are locked up as inhuman in some way.

EP: If the system is inhumane then everyone who is participating is going to have trauma from that experience. In the same sense we should be talking about what are the hidden costs on those individuals who are eventually released and who have experienced that inhumanity, that trauma. What are the hidden costs, what are the public health costs, how is this a public health crisis when people don’t have the support when they have experienced this trauma against their will?

Panagioti Tsolkas (PT): The stories people are telling have been a big inspiration behind my organizing work with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons. We have been working very closely with Emily and the Abolitionist Law Center on the lawsuit that was filed two weeks ago. The Letcher County fight is another example of resistance to prison expansion built on the model of the Delano II campaign. The named plaintiff in the Delano II lawsuit was actually the Tipton kangaroo rat. The kangaroo rat led the fight in a way and brought to the table environmentalists and others who had not engaged directly with prison abolition or prisoner rights organizing. That was a huge piece that we wanted to build on. We wanted to open the door for environmental activists to engage; to bring their skillset, their networks and their tools into the fight around incarceration. That was the inspiration for us to include concerns around the endangered Indiana bat in our public comments, to coordinate with biologists and to conduct extensive wildlife research. We found that the proposed Letcher County site was quite close to the neighboring Lilley Cornett Woods, one of the few remaining old growth forest ecosystems in the country and especially the east coast. It’s an area that is used by Eastern Kentucky University Environmental Studies Programs for faculty and student research. This habitat wasn’t even mentioned in the environmental impact statement—not even in the tangential cumulative impact. So we put it on the table and we have been able to bring in environmental groups who haven’t been involved in organizing against prisons, but who are very familiar with the environmental impact process. We have involvement from some of the big groups like Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earth Justice and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). These are environmental organizations that don’t typically want to have anything to do with grassroots organizers or direct action organizers like the Earth First! movement because we are seen as having fringe perspectives. Through the last two decades of organizing, groups like Critical Resistance have taken prison abolition from the fringe to the center. Right now people are talking about prisons and using abolitionist frameworks in mainstream circles. We saw this happening with the prison strike organizing over the last two years and I think it exemplifies the fact that there is a space being developed where ideas that had previously been relegated to the sidelines are coming front and center. Pulling the environmental movement into that and directing resources towards these sorts of fights is a huge step in creating fundamental change.

The Abolitionist: This leads into another question related to the environmental, social and economic exploitation that comes with coal mining. I am wondering how a framing of toxicity helps us to understand the fight against prisons as an environmental justice issue and vice versa. I am wondering too if there is any kind of irony in siting a prison on a former mine site and if there is something deliberate to that decision?

JS: It is entirely deliberate in the sense that those are spaces that have been razed through mountaintop removal mining. These mountains have been decapitated leaving flat land, which is at a bit of a premium in the region because of the mountainous topography. And so prisons and sometimes other things such as business parks and housing developments are introduced as ways to resolve the surplus land. This also gestures back to your questions about environmental justice and public health in pretty explicit ways. I spoke with two different people during the course my research who said related things on this topic. These are two people in two different areas of Central Appalachia: one in south-west Virginia who is a drug abuse counselor and the other from Martin County which is two counties north from Letcher County in Eastern Kentucky. Both in their respective ways said that the construction prisons in their communities represented just the next iteration of toxic development projects, as the prisons followed coal mines, coal slurry impoundments, landfills or trash incinerators. In Southwestern Virginia the person spoke to me about how she saw a changing demographic in her clientele as a drug abuse counselor when the two state prisons were built in Southwest Virginia in the late 90s. To be explicit she said she started seeing many more prison guards who were struggling with addiction. Martin County is infamous for being the site of the launch of the war on poverty, but more recently, it was the site of a really horrendous coal slurry impoundment break that sent 306 million gallons of toxic coal sludge into the water tables and down tributaries, which killed 1.6 million fish and poisoned the water of 30,000 people. The EPA called it “the worst environmental disaster ever in the southeast United States”. That happened in 2000 just a few years before USP Big Sandy was built. It was finished in 2003 or 2004 and is the most expensive federal prison ever built, largely because of the extra remediation work necessary to fix the fact that the prison was sinking into the coalmine beneath it! Now, 55 years after the War on Poverty was declared from the county and 15 years after the most expensive federal prison was built, people in Martin County still cannot drink or bathe in the water. The money is there, it just lines the pockets of coal executives and is sunk into the infrastructures of extraction and captivity. People in Appalachia are already thinking through these connections between prisons, environmental justice and public health because the history and landscape reveal that these struggles are intimately connected.

SR: Yes, health has been a really important frame for connecting the movement against mountaintop removal mining to work being done against prison building. The fight against mountaintop removal mining mobilized around the idea of Appalachia being used as a national sacrifice zone. So, now, as the coal companies are leaving and prisons are being built on top of this “sacrificed land,” we can see clearly how prison building is consolidating the crises of both urban and rural America.  It is really important to think about how prison siting in Appalachia is beneficial to coal companies. These companies use prisons as a rationale for how this barren, flat land is now benefiting the region by providing cheap and available land for new prisons. Furthermore, prison building can save companies from having to pay the full “reclamation” cost of restoring a mountain to its original contour, as required by law, if a prison will make use of the flat land. Thus it is entirely working in the coal companies’ interests to have prisons built on these sites.  The local campaign against USP Letcher is using the frame #Our444Million (Letcher is estimated to cost $444 million to build), which is importantly not a NIMBY (not in my backyard) response to this prison at all, but rooted in part in the long history of regional resistance to absentee corporate control of Appalachia.  #Our444million is about demanding community controlled investment in a healthy and just future for Appalachia, one that is not built on fossil fuels or incarceration. Folks are saying that we need investment in our community to help heal from and restore these toxic sites, which have had devastating health impacts on coalfield communities. When you build a prison there, money is directed towards further toxicity and away from the huge need to deal with the devastation left behind by mountaintop removal mining.

PT: I want to think about prisons within the framework of industrial extraction. Instead of extracting resources from underground, they are extracting people from their neighborhoods and communities (largely inner city communities that have been historically targeted by the criminal justice system) and shipping them to rural prisons. It is essentially an extractive process of pulling people out of neighborhoods and creating an industry that serves political and commercial interests. Congressman Hal Rogers (US House Republican, Kentucky) put forward contracts at Letcher as political favors or payback to contractors even though the Department of Justice maintains that USP Letcher is no longer necessary. It’s already being viewed as a way to provide kickbacks to companies, ignoring the local labor pool in Letcher county, and going to major contractors in the region or nationally. The prison serves the interests, even some of the same families, of those who benefited from the coal mining that occurred on that very mountain.

In the national context, it is not rare that a prison is built on a mine or near a sludge pond. We have been documenting this same pattern state by state, through public records requests, communication with prisoners and pouring over local newspapers. It’s unfortunately the norm to treat people in prison as disposable and to put them in places that are considered sacrifice zones. The Realignment Act, although imperfect, forced the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to revisit whether or not it was capable and competent enough to provide basic mental health treatment for people in its custody. We need to counter the tough on crime rhetoric and point to state agencies as the real culprit in this wrong. Environmental Justice and health provides a vehicle for that in a way that has not been utilized as effectively as it could be.

The Abolitionist: That is a really great point. I wanted to point out that one thing that happened that with realignment was that some of the money and resources was shifted to municipalities and counties so that the response to overcrowding and poor healthcare was not to release people, but to just lock them up in county jails. This prompted a jail building boom around the state. Not surprisingly, many have been sited in places that are already toxic. In addition counties became responsible for the huge number of people with mental health challenges who are locked up. So for instance, the LA County Jail system is the biggest provider of mental health services in the county. So, that is just a note around realignment that any shifting of responsibility from one state agent to another in regards to issues related to the prison industrial complex is going to produce the same results.

The Abolitionist: Last question. Whether or not the EJ movement mentions policing and imprisonment at all, is the EJ movement explicitly or implicitly against prisons and policing?

CG: I teach a course on-line to young political organizers and talked about the INICTE!-CR statement a couple of weeks ago. In prepping for this call, I was thinking about what a statement like that would have looked like if it were Environmental Justice organizers and CR sitting down and hammering out that kind of deep, thoughtful, forward looking, self-critical statement and it reminded me of some of the work that came out of Berkeley Criminology (back when there was a Berkeley Criminology). The work called into question common sense understandings of what crime was or wasn’t or what dangerous crime was as opposed to petty crime and pointed out that corporations or individuals who work for corporations might be breaking laws and by doing so, killing a lot of people. However, they weren’t being seen as dangerous or serious criminals and in many cases they weren’t thought of as criminals at all. What would a statement about avoiding violence and repairing the harm of violence look like if rather than going into it with INCITE!’s interpersonal violence frame, we thought of it as social violence or state violence? The confluence of abolition and environmental justice might be able to create something like that INCITE!-CR statement about the work that we have to do over the next generation to find the common ground between these two fights, which isn’t necessarily well seen in either camp. I think that that the language of INCITE! has in a very healthy way come to dominate a lot of abolitionist discussion, when we are talking about reducing or eliminating harm such that we have options other than state or police intervention. What does that look like when we are talking about state or corporate violence and not simply interpersonal violence? This is a place where we have a lot to learn from the Environmental Justice movement because basically that is what their work is about. It is about coming to the understanding of where harm comes from and also using either shared harm or vulnerability to shared harm as a way to create solidarity and move people forward politically.

SR: And in a lot of ways the organizing happening in Appalachia right now is at the frontline of those questions and intersections, and is critically linked to organizing happening in other locations. Building from the frame of healing and harm reduction, I think the future of this multi-sited organizing has the opportunity to powerfully connect the principles of restorative justice to demands for a restorative economy; a system that is not built on layers of toxicity, but one that invests in healing people and places in multiple locations.

Craig Gilmore is a member of the CR Community Advisory Board, a co-founder of California Prison Moratorium Project and a former member of Central California Environmental Justice Network.

Emily Posner is an attorney with expertise in criminal defense, civil rights and environmental justice. She currently works with the public interest law firm, the Abolitionist Law Center.

Sylvia Ryerson is a radio producer and PhD student in American Studies at Yale University. From 2010-2015, she worked at Appalshop, a documentary arts center in Central Appalachia.  She co-directed the production of Calls from Home, a nationally recognized radio program that broadcasts toll-free phone messages from family members to their loved ones incarcerated in rural Appalachia, and organized against prison expansion in Eastern Kentucky and for a just transition from coal extraction. She co-convenes the carceral state working group at Yale University.

Judah Schept is an Associate Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He is the author of Progressive Punishment: Job Loss, Jail Growth, and the Neoliberal Logic of Carceral Expansion (New York University Press, 2015). He is currently working on a book tentatively titled Cages in the Coalfields: Extraction and Disposal in Carceral Appalachia, which examines the growth and role of prisons in Central Appalachia. He is a longtime member of Critical Resistance.

Panagioti Tsolkas is a founder/coordinator of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, a former editor of the Earth First! Journal, a direct action trainer and a father of two.

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