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American’s Prisons: Factory Farms for Humans

2015 November 2
by Ben Achtenberg

A Different Perspective on
our Overblown Prison System

I’ve written before about conditions in our nation’s prison system – particularly in relation to our deeply disturbing over-use of solitary confinement.

I wasn’t expecting to find a new angle onPrisonEco1 this problem in the magazine of the Sierra Club – a publication I might not be reading at all except that I get it as a contributor to the organization. But, as an article in a recent issue notes, in addition to locking up a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation, “our prisons are a continual source of environmental degradation.”

As prison populations increase – with many institutions criminally overcrowded (small pun here) problems resulting from the waste they generate have in some cases become overwhelming. In her Sierra article, Dashka Slater describes a 2005 hearing in Alabama, where citizens came to protest prison sewage releases that were degrading the rivers where they swam, boated and fished:

The source was the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, which held some 1,500 inmates even though it had been built to house fewer than half that many. “Rest assured that if any one of us was dumping raw sewage into the river, we would be heavily fined and locked up in the very prison we’re discussing,” observed Buddy Vines, described in the next day’s Birmingham News as “a lifelong resident of property along the river.”

PrisonEco2Groups cited in the article who are responding to this issue include the Prison Ecology Project, whose director, Panagioti Tsolkas, says “In some ways a prison is a factory farm for humans and, sadly, it has the equivalent output.”

“In prison you don’t have any choice…”

In addition to looking at the polluting impact of prisons on their surroundings, the article cites a number of correctional institutions where inmates themselves are at risk from chemicals in nearby waste dumps, landfills and other sources. Dashka notes that “inmates in many of these facilities report health problems consistent with toxic exposure, but their options are limited.” She quotes Paul Wright, founder of the Prison Ecology Project’s parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center, who says “They can’t say ‘Hey, I don’t like it here, so I’m going to move.’ In prison you don’t have any choice.”

Note: the Human Rights Defense Center publishes its own newsletter, Prison Legal News. Illustrations in this post are from the original Sierra article.

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