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Excerpted From: Taylor Carpenter, The Death Sentence That Is America's Toxic Prisons, 17 Indiana Health Law Review 229 (2020) (Student Note) (262 Footnotes) (Full Document)


TaylorCarpenterSeeing inequity in the environmental protection of their communities, concerned citizens started the environmental justice movement in the 1960s, and attempted to address the burden of environmental harms on minority and low-income communities. The environmental justice movement strives for “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” All peoples having the same protection from environmental and health hazards and having equal access to the decision-making for a healthy community is ultimately the goal of the movement. Our country's inmates suffer from environmental injustice and have been largely left out of the movement until fairly recently. However, the inmates' plight is a pressing environmental justice issue because of their exposure to environmental and health hazards, and the large number of incarcerated minorities.

The health and environmental hazards in prisons disproportionately impact minority populations because minority populations are disproportionately incarcerated. For example, in Indiana, whites makeup eighty-two percent of the total population, but only comprise fifty-nine percent of the incarcerated population. In contrast, blacks make up thirty-four percent of the incarcerated population while only making up nine percent of the total population. This disparity illustrates why inmates need to be included in the environmental justice movement--it's supposed to protect these vulnerable groups of people.

So far, the discussions examining inmate health through an environmental justice lens has largely focused on the building sites for new prisons. However, the recent addition of the prison layer to the Environmental Protection Agency's (hereinafter “EPA”) “Environmental Justice and Screening Tool” is an example of the positive progress in this area. According to the EPA, the tool uses national data and amalgamates environmental and demographic indicators into maps and reports. The tool allows users to find areas with: “minority and/or low-income populations, potential environmental quality issues, [and] a combination of environmental and demographic indicators that is greater than usual.” The prison layer allows users to analyze the location of prisons, jails, and detention centers in relation to environmental hazards. The addition of the prison layer is a big step for the growing national movement of environmental justice for inmates and for analyzing prisons from an environmental justice perspective.

As the discussion surrounding the environmental and health hazards of prisons progresses, our country needs to start examining legal solutions to the problem--solutions that will lead to fewer exposures and better quality of life for those men and women who are forced to live in a particular place.

[. . . ]

Bringing these constitutional claims may be the wake-up call this country needs regarding the environmental injustices facing our inmate population. However, at its core, this is an attitude problem--a problem with having an indifferent attitude to the health and well-being of the inmates of this country. Yet, the ways in which this indifference has manifested is unconstitutional, and going forward our country needs to either hold in the court or pass laws that prohibit these types of situations and protect our inmates' constitutional rights.

For example, the land on or near FCI Victorville, ADX Florence, and the Northwest Detention Center are all built on or near Superfund sites. The courts should hold or Congress should pass a law that makes it illegal to build prisons on these sites because the government is forcing people to live on land with known serious health concerns associated with exposures from these sites. Or, when there is a preferred alternative site, like at the Northwest Detention Center, because of hazardous contamination on the other option, the hazardous option should be automatically taken out of the running because of the possible health problems that could arise from housing people there. Indianapolis' new Criminal Justice center presents an opportunity for the proper clean-up and safeguards to be in place before housing inmates on possibly toxic land and causing constitutional rights violations.

Forcing inmates to serve out their time in these toxic prisons is essentially a death sentence for those who never were condemned to such a harsh punishment and is unconstitutional on due process and cruel and unusual punishment grounds. However, this problem represents a bigger problem with how this country values those men and women trapped in our prison system and this country will need to reconsider the worth it puts on an inmate's life.

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, J.D. Candidate, 2020; Bachelor of Arts, 2016, University of Georgia.

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