America's toxic prisons

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'The water is bad, the air is bad, and the ground is bad. The soil is just sitting on top of … an excess of 50 million tons of toxic waste.'

Those relationships exist whether we acknowledge them or not. All of these things are always connected. And some of it is hidden, and some of it is not.

The health and safety of incarcerated people in the United States are one front of the environmental justice movement, which recognizes that the structural inequalities built into society, particularly those based on race and socioeconomic status, are statistically connected to a person’s access to a clean and healthy environment. 

Environmental justice affirms that all people have the right to clean land, water, air, and food. It demands environmental policy free of discrimination and bias and is based on mutual respect and justice for all people.

Incarcerated people have long spoken out and fought against unsafe and, at times, inhumane environmental conditions they’ve experienced inside detention facilities. They and those who advocate for them from outside lead that front of the environmental justice movement.


Richard Mosley, for example, started experiencing health problems almost immediately after starting his sentence at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette, located in LaBelle, Pa., south of Pittsburgh.

“Maybe the first or second day, my nose just closed up,” Mosley said. “While I was there, I was noticing everybody was on allergy-type medicine. But I could barely breathe.” Soon, respiratory problems started affecting his sleep, and he developed digestive issues. “My situation progressively just got worse.… It was just a nightmare.”

Many other people incarcerated at Fayette have reported similar and more severe health problems that developed after they arrived on site: headaches, severe congestion, nosebleeds, rashes, hives, gastrointestinal problems. Cancer.

After he got out, Mosley started fighting to close SCI Fayette. As a lead organizer for Put People First! Pennsylvania, he works with groups like the Abolitionist Law Center, the Prison Ecology Project, and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons to bring this widespread environmental and racial justice issue into the public eye.

This recognition is needed, Mosley explained, because having deplorable conditions inside detention facilities is an environmental justice issue that isn’t unique to just one prison or one state. “We’re finding that this is what is going on around the country. It’s not just limited to Fayette,” he said.

Those relationships exist whether we acknowledge them or not. All of these things are always connected. And some of it is hidden, and some of it is not.


Geoscientists should think about environmental justice in connection with their research, argued Fushcia-Ann Hoover. “Those relationships exist whether we acknowledge them or not. All of these things are always connected. And some of it is hidden, and some of it is not.”

Hoover is an urban hydrologist whose research is informed by environmental justice. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Md.

Although much of the current work related to prison ecology and health is done by people who work outside traditional geoscience channels—in sociology, criminology, environmental health, and law—their work shows that there is “absolutely” a place for geoscientists in establishing safe and humane conditions for incarcerated people, Mosley said.

For example, he said, SCI Fayette and many other prisons lack systematic monitoring of water, air, and soil quality. Such monitoring practices are familiar to geoscientists across many specialties. Any and all quantitative data can help support a legal case for prisoners’ rights, Mosley added.

Beyond the need for data, scientists can also testify as expert witnesses in lawsuits challenging existing conditions, said Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center in Lake Worth, Fla., and editor of Prison Legal News. So far, he added, they’ve been reluctant to do so: “Scientists have been largely absent from any discussions on criminal justice issues in general.”

“As researchers within the geoscience community,” Hoover said, “especially now we really need to be asking ourselves, ‘What are the other connections within our work and within our research? And how is what I am doing affecting disenfranchised communities?’”


The United States incarcerates more people, and more people per capita, than any other country. The country has 7,147 prisons, jails, detention centers, and correctional facilities that incarcerate 2.3 million people.

Black, Latino, and Native and Indigenous people are overrepresented in this carceral system, a legacy of slavery and structural racism. After 1865, when the 13th Amendment banned slavery except for people convicted of crimes, southern governments created laws targeting Black people, incarcerated them en masse, and then sold their labor for profit.

The southern Black Codes evolved into various vagrancy laws and then Jim Crow laws. Modern policing carried echoes of this structural racism into the post–civil rights era, for example, in “tough on crime” policies and the domestic “war on drugs.”

The effect of these policies is that people of color are arrested and incarcerated at significantly higher rates than white people despite committing crimes at the same or a lower rate. One in every three Black boys and one in six Latino boys born today can expect to go to jail in his lifetime, compared with one in 17 white boys.

Black, Native American, and poor women are overrepresented in incarcerated populations compared with U.S. demographics. The population of people incarcerated in the United States also includes asylum seekers and people who enter the United States without documentation.


This is an issue “that I know many, many men and women face throughout this country each and every day. But because they’re incarcerated, most voices or opinions aren’t heard, or people feel [they] don’t matter.”

The environmental conditions inside US correctional facilities, therefore, have a significant health impact on already disenfranchised communities. This is an issue “that I know many, many men and women face throughout this country each and every day,” said Matthew Morgenstern. “But because they’re incarcerated, most voices or opinions aren’t heard or people feel [they] don’t matter.”

Morgenstern detailed some of his experiences while serving time at SCI Fayette. He described being out in the yard and watching dump trucks carrying coal ash up a large hill across from the compound. When the vehicles weren’t covered, “you’d be able to see dust coming off the backs of these dump trucks. Eventually, this dust would end up in the compound at Fayette. It was a daily occurrence to see a light film of a gray dust, especially in our cells.”

At Fayette, many of the health issues inmates experience stem from that large hill. It’s been a 2-square kilometer (500-acre) coal ash dump site since 1998 and was a coal processing waste site before that. The prison, built in 2003, lies 152 meters (500 feet) away.

Fly ash—the gray dust inside Fayette’s cells—carries toxins into the air and is associated with heart and lung problems. The coal waste leeches toxic metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, and nickel into the ground and water.


“Water quality in prison, I think, is probably the leading environmental issue,” said David N. Pellow, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and director of the Global Environmental Justice Project. “It’s rare to find a prison with healthy water … but it is exceedingly routine and normal to find prisons where the water is visibly, I mean to the human eye, visibly contaminated.”

“In Fayette they call it tea water ’cause it’s brown,” said Mosley. “The water is bad, the air is bad, and the ground is bad. The soil is just sitting on top of … an excess of 50 million tons of toxic waste.”

Fayette’s inmates, including Morgenstern, were getting sick from the contamination, while the staff, the guards, and the guard dogs were given bottled water to drink.

Monitoring contaminant levels in and around SCI Fayette would help the activists’ case against the prison: “Our goal is to get the prison shut down and get everybody out,” Mosley said. “Not just the prisoners. We want the guards out of harm’s way, the staff out of harm’s way, the guard dogs out of harm’s way, because the site is toxic."


The US EPA collects and publicly releases data on many invisible contaminants found in water nationwide. It wasn’t until 2017, however, that EPA included prisons as a category in its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool.

There are few “systematic, peer-reviewed studies about environmental injustice and environmental health impacts on incarcerated communities at all.”

“One of our greatest accomplishments was a data victory with the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, two of the groups that fought for the EPA change. “Our hope is that scientists will take data tools like this and run with them, to better document conditions surrounding prisons.”

However, despite data being available, “the health of US incarcerated populations has been really largely ignored,” said Anne Nigra, a postdoctoral researcher in environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York. Nigra is lead author on the first nationwide research study of arsenic levels in community water systems.

There are few “systematic, peer-reviewed studies about environmental injustice and environmental health impacts on incarcerated communities at all,” she said, “whether it’s drinking water, whether it’s air quality, whether it’s potential for allergens, or nutritional quality of the food.”


Arsenic that enters drinking water is more likely to come from a natural groundwater source than contamination from pipes. Groundwater in the United States is most likely to exceed the Environmental Protection Agency maximum safe limit of 10 micrograms per liter in the southwestern states and in Maine. In those areas, water systems that serve only detention facilities report significantly higher arsenic levels than do nearby residential water systems. 

For their study, the researchers gathered EPA data for about 37,000 community water systems serving the same population year-round. They compared arsenic concentrations of systems that supply only correctional facilities with those of systems that also supply residential communities.

“Water systems that exclusively serve correctional facilities in the southwestern US had average six-year arsenic concentrations that were twice as high as those reported for other community water systems” in the region, she said.

The groundwater that supplies most water systems in the region has naturally occurring elevated arsenic levels because of the geochemical conditions in the aquifers. That’s the leading source of arsenic contamination in the region, Nigra said, and it’s relatively easy to filter out.

Despite this, “the odds of exceeding 10 micrograms per liter, [EPA’s] maximum contaminant level, were also significantly higher for the correctional facilities, versus water systems that did not exclusively serve correctional facilities,” she added.


The age of a detention facility can determine the type of pollution to which prisoners are exposed. Roughly two thirds of federal and state prison facilities were built less than 40 years ago, which reflects the start of modern mass incarceration policies.

The remaining facilities were built at a roughly steady rate over the past 120 years, and there are nearly 100 currently operating facilities more than 100 years old. Many compounds have old and failing structures with mold, asbestos, lead pipes, and other environmental issues common to older buildings.

“With drinking water, one of the biggest concerns is always lead,” Hoover explained. Lead pipes can be eroded by water sources that contain acidic or carcinogenic material. Unlined or untreated pipes can then bleed lead into the water supply, which is what happened at Genesee County Jailand in residential areas in Flint, Mich., she said.

“Particularly with climate change and the increase in intense storms, it becomes more difficult for the system to handle [stormwater] and process it.”

In addition, aging facilities are being pushed past their capacity: The number of people incarcerated in the United States grew 500 percent in the past 4 decades, driven by mass incarceration at state and local levels of people of color.


“The old prisons and jails keep getting older, with inadequate and overburdened water and sewage systems that appear to be failing much faster than they are repaired,” Tsolkas said. And just as climate change magnifies other preexisting problems in communities around the world, climate-induced extreme weather events will likely overwhelm many prisons’ water management systems.

“Particularly with climate change and the increase in intense storms, it becomes more difficult for the system to handle [stormwater] and process it,” Hoover said. Stormwater “can back up into basements of old homes or basements of buildings like prisons, perhaps, depending on what their infrastructure looks like, whether or not they have sump pumps or some type of containment system to keep the water out.”

“With flooding, where there are people, there is always a serious health hazard,” as floodwaters can sweep up toxic chemicals, she added. “And in some cases, if you’re operating under a combined sewer system, you have the addition of sewage that is mixed with the rainwater.”

For example, at Parchman Farm (formally Mississippi State Penitentiary) the water “runs dark brown, dark red, has a lot of heavy particulate matter in it,” said Paloma Wu, deputy director of Impact Litigation at the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit focused on civil rights advocacy and litigation that represents Mississippi prisoners in civil rights cases. “People will say, very consistently, that it smells like sewage. And that’s been going on for a really long time.”

Water quality and water management are two of the most pressing problems in old and aging detention facilities, including 119-year-old Parchman Farm in Mississippi. Insufficient, unmaintained, or damaged drainage pipes cause water to pool in and around the buildings. Pipes leading indoors or that bring water in can get backed up, which leads to contamination. 

Although the US carceral system costs at least $182 billion (US dollars) per year, funding generally isn’t going toward preparing facilities for climate change. In recent years, localstate, and federal correctional systems have spent a combined annual average of $3.3 billion (1.8 percent) on construction-related expenditures, including new facilities as well as renovations and repairs to existing ones.


Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policy does encourage its facility managers to maximize water and energy conservation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, policies regulating state and local detention facilities vary as widely as the politics of each state and municipality, explained Dustin McDaniel, the Abolitionist Law Center’s director of operations.

While studying the intersection of climate law and criminal law, “it became very quickly clear the folks working on climate change weren’t thinking about corrections at all,” said Daniel Holt, who studied heat in US prisons and jails as a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. He currently teaches history and law at a New York City high school.

Holt continued: “And the notion of climate change, particularly as a public health issue for both inmates and staff, was pretty much just not on the radar of people working in corrections, either from a prisoners’ rights standpoint or from a correctional administration standpoint.”

In addition to more intense storms, carceral facilities will have to reckon with more extreme temperatures in summer and winter. Those in coastal areas must prepare for rising sea levels, and those in floodplains must prepare for flooding events. “The very first step is acknowledging that we have a problem,” Holt said. “And the second step is to do a careful and comprehensive assessment of the problem in a detailed and localized way.”


On-site pollution predates many detention facilities. Colocation of prisons and preexisting pollution—including landfills and waste sites—“is almost so commonplace, and usually in rural areas with limited media attention, that it often goes unnoticed,” Tsolkas said.

“Environmental justice historically has focused on residential location and residential exposure,” said graduate student Maggie León-Corwin. “Incarcerated populations are easy to overlook” but still feel the effects of pollution.

León-Corwin is lead author of a study examining colocation of prisons in Oklahoma with EPA-reported Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) emissions. She is a PhD student studying environmental sociology and social inequality at Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater.

Oklahoma incarcerates more people per capita than any other US state. The team found that Oklahoma zip codes encompassing prisons have statistically higher levels of TRI emissions than zip codes without prisons.

Not by chance, areas of high emissions were also poorer and more rural. Wealthier communities reject having a prison or polluter built in their neighborhoods. And poorer communities sometimes welcome the facility for the jobs it provides, or they simply lack the political clout to stop it.

“It’s simultaneously ‘not in my backyard’ but also ‘please, in my backyard,’ both of which are tailored to placing prisons and facilities that release TRI emissions in economically disadvantaged communities,” said Jericho McElroy, a graduate student in sociology and criminal justice at OSU and a coauthor of the study.


“There are still certainly issues of relegating those who are disenfranchised in our communities into similar spaces,” Hoover said. Letcher County, Kentucky, is a prime example. Its economy plummeted after the end of mountaintop removal mining. The practice is associated with locally elevated rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and pulmonary disease.

Letcher would have been the site of the most expensive federal prison in US history, built atop a former coal mine and next to an active mine and coal sludge pond.

The location was no coincidence: “This is a business model across the country,” Mosley said.  “After the land has been depleted and resources have been removed, they sell it to the Department of Corrections or a landfill.”

The site’s approval prompted an extensive 3-year environmental impact review that led to a lawsuit filed by 21 federal prisoners from across the country, with support from groups like the Abolitionist Law Center and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons.


In 2019, the prisoners won their case, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons withdrew its intent to build a penitentiary at Letcher.

Prisoners and prisoners’ rights activists won a major victory there, according to Pellow. “Prisoners could have been subjected to exposure to a whole host of hazards had this facility been built ... It’s not just people living in residential communities who are fighting for environmental justice.

"Prisoners are really leading an important new front in the struggle for environmental justice. Seeing them as leaders in that cause is really important.”

Prisons, jails, and other government detention facilities are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and other federal environmental regulations, but case studies demonstrate that compliance and enforcement are lacking at facilities spanning the country.

In a statement provided to Eos, the BOP refuted allegations of a lack of enforcement of environmental and health regulations: “BOP takes seriously our duty to protect staff and inmates in our facilities as well as surrounding communities. The BOP coordinates with federal, state and local environmental regulatory agencies with respect to environmental compliance, environmental studies, and water quality for our facility operations and inmate population.”

The agency stated that BOP policy “discusses temperature set points, ventilation, and cooling and heating systems. Additionally, BOP regularly reviews and takes steps to address environmental, health, and safety concerns in all of the BOP’s correctional institutions.”

Continuing the fight

What complicates matters, Tsolkas said, is that a large fraction of incarcerated people are held in county facilities that are controlled at local levels, not state or federal. That makes their conditions hard to track and target with litigation.

“If I would have told you this story a couple years ago,” Mosley said, “you might have gone, ‘Hmm, wow, wild story.’ But nowadays, when you can turn on the news and see how people are being treated every day by government, by police, it’s not a far-fetched story.”

Incarcerated populations have been disproportionately affected by racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Fighting structural racism at every level is the tide that raises all boats,” said Wu. “No institution is immune from perpetuating structural racism, and that’s not something to make us feel bad about ourselves.

"It means that every one of us can improve the situation by fighting for the world we want to live in, in our own workplaces ... We can all do better in our own institutions to help dismantle structural racism. Including scientists.”

This Author 

Kimberly M. S. Cartier is a news and features writer for She joined the Eos staff in 2017 after earning her PhD studying extrasolar planets. Kimberly covers space science, climate change, and STEM diversity, justice, and education.

This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Environmental justice advocates have gathered personal stories, case studies, and legal cases that demonstrate how environmental injustice, mass incarceration, and systemic racism are connected in the United States. Here are a few resources we recommend to learn more about America’s toxic prisons.

America’s toxic prisons: The environmental injustices of mass incarceration.

Environmental justice, explained.

Prisons as LULUs: Understanding the parallels between prison proliferation and environmental injustices.

The disturbing link between environmental racism and criminalization.

Environmental injustice behind bars: Toxic imprisonment in America.

The Keystone: Fayette Health Justice Issue.

Toxic detention: The trend of contamination in the American immigration system.

How prisons are poisoning their inmates.