There are many reasons why prisons are notoriously controversial. Not only are they beyond inhumane, but they prevent people who need help from properly rehabilitating themselves, and oftentimes, disproportionate numbers of BIPOC people are incarcerated for charges that might otherwise be overlooked. Beyond that, though, the environmental impact of prisons is far greater than you would imagine.
Two mega prisons that are being built in England, for example, are posing a major environmental risk.
Now, environmentalists in the area are fighting back in hopes to prevent the project from progressing.
“Already seven parish councils have come together to create a network, and a community action group has been created. It’s called Swap: Stop Wethersfield Airfield Prisons," environmental campaigner, Rosie Pearson, told The Guardian. "We are in the process of appointing experts to assist in the campaign, and we are working on a better alternative – to see the land sold to a rewilding buyer."
The environmental impact of prisons is exorbitant.
Prisons — mega prisons, in particular — have a super high impact because they require large amounts of land to be cleared, and ultimately, deforestation. The previously mentioned English mega prisons that are currently in the works, per The Guardian, will require the removal of about 75,000 trees and shrubs. And, if the plans move forward, they will be developed atop a rare bird and amphibian habitat, despite the Environmental Act, that should be protecting it as an important natural space.
Many native birds and plants in the area are red-listed. And although Pearson and other local organizations are attempting to protect the wild areas from development, building could begin as early as 2023.
Likewise, a similar development was set to take place in Kentucky in 2015, that would not only have created large amounts of waste from building atop a former coal mine, but it also would have wiped out native endangered bats, according to Bloomberg. However, the impact of prisons goes beyond development.
Many facilities are guilty of illegally dumping raw sewage, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, because many have inadequate sewage systems. Energy usage and labor programs have also done a number on air quality, as well as local waterways.
"Over the past five years, federal and state agencies have brought 132 informal actions and 28 formal actions against regulated prisons and jails under the Clean Water Act, resulting in $556,315 in fines," the article from the Equal Justice Initiative reads.
"And industrial activities associated with prison labor programs or local power generation have also harmed local air quality. EPA data shows that 92 informal actions and 51 formal actions were brought against prisons, jails, and detention centers across the country under the Clean Air Act during the past five years," per Equal Justice Initiative.
Prisons also bring environmental injustice to inmates living there.
In addition to the fact that mass incarceration is associated with a wide range of social injustices and environmental hazards, it's also the site of countless environmental injustices. According to NRDC, inmates living in prisons are often subjected to highly dangerous, toxic conditions. Drinking water is often contaminated with arsenic and other cancer-causing chemicals. Many are also built near or atop defunct mines, superfund sites, and landfills, which are linked to health problems.
Additionally, prisons are often incredibly overcrowded, which can lead to the development and spread of diseases such as COVID-19. And oftentimes, inmates are provided with inadequate health services, which is both a major social and environmental issue.
Unfortunately, prisons most likely won't be going away anytime soon. But until they are eventually phased out, they will continue wreaking havoc on humankind as well as the environment.