In a timely move as the prison system faces major market-oriented reform, members of the US-based Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons will be going on tour around the country in late September and early October to talk about their experiences of — and successes against — the social and ecological impact of the United States prison-industrial complex.
CFTP organises resistance at the intersection of mass incarceration and the environment and has successfully delayed the only current Federal prison construction project for over two years through grassroots organising, advocacy and direct action. Speakers will be working through strategy and tactics, as well as broader struggles of prison abolition, anti-racism, and environmental justice.
The talks, organised with Community Action on Prison Expansion, will also look at resistance against the planned six new mega-prisons in England and Wales, which themselves are proposed for toxic sites, including radiological contamination and asbestos pollution.
In an article for Earth First! zine Whirlwind, anti-prison activists explained:
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 1,600 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 2,100 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 [for example], 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.
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.
CAPE is looking for groups to help organise tour dates in the last week of September and the first week of October, and can support with venue, printing and accessibility costs if needed. Ideally (though no pressure) there could also be fundraising.
Email [email protected] for more information and to get involved.