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Social Justice and Environmental Justice Intersect

Any links between mass incarceration and environmental abuse might not be immediately obvious. But they exist and the Prison Legal News, the Human Rights Defense Center and Nation Inside are combining resources to talk to this unlikely but potent and dangerous intersection of issues.

The Prison Ecology Project is creating tools to dismantle toxic prisons.

Ask people in Appalachia who have watched prisons such as FCI McDowell built on exhausted mountain-top removal mining sites. Ask folks out west who’ve watched prisons plonked down upon fragile desert ecosystems. Ask those in the rust belt, who’ve seen prisons brought to town for the sake of jobs after heavy industry and mineral extraction have left town. When one would think regions couldn’t be stripped and abused anymore, the rape of communities follows that of the environment. In Pennsylvania, a prison built on a toxic coal ash dump is crippling those locked up inside.

Prisons, historically, have gone up where desperation for employment has meant little-to-no oversight, public discussion or even opposition. No one forecast problems because they didn’t want to imagine them; prisons provided an answer to your uncle Frank’s four years of unemployment.

“The prison industry has a long history of ecological violence. Rikers Island prison in New York City was literally built on a trash heap, and evidence suggests a high incidence of cancer among guards and prisoners,” writes the HRDC. “In California and Texas prisoners have little recourse but to drink arsenic-laced water. In Alabama, an overpopulated prison habitually dumps sewage into a river where people fish and swim. In Kentucky, construction of a new prison is poised to clear 700 acres of endangered species habitat. Stories like these are too common. The issues impact millions of people in and around prisons across the US but are largely ignored.”

GIVE ‘EM YOUR MONEY

The Prison Ecology Project is raising $15,000 on IndieGogo to boost its capacity to research and analyse data. They are uncovering abuses and amassing a clearinghouse of information on over 5,000 prisons nationwide which we can all use to fight poisonous prisons!

HRDC’s work in this chronically understudied area will “keep pressure on an industry notorious for its lack of transparency.”

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They’ve got the chops. HRDC is the publisher of Prison Legal News which has exposed environmental problems and covered stories of whistleblower litigation in prisons for over 20 years.

The first target of HRDC is a federal prison planned for Letcher County, Kentucky. Its construction would demolish 700 acres of endangered species habitat in Appalachia while imprisoning people hundreds of miles from their families.

WHY THE WORK?

“Incarcerated people are some of the most vulnerable and uniquely over-burdened demographics in our nation,” explains HRDC. “Almost all of the prison population is low-income, and people of color are disproportionately represented by wide margins in every state. Most people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system have not engaged with the environmental movement up to the present time.”

The Prison Ecology Project changes that dynamic.

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Operating prisons stresses the environment. Recognising that provides yet another reason to fight the toxic philosophical underpinnings and racism of a broken and out of control system. Decarceration is good for your lungs!

It’s not so much as convincing players in one political action to adopt another, as it is exercising closer bonds between movements of the left that operate in opposition counter to the abuse and social exclusion of lower income groups. It’s about recognising new allies and being collectively stronger. I love this type of imagination.

IN THE PRESS

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ACTIVIST-SHAREHOLDERING

I love the term “activist-shareholder.” I envision a person wearing protest t-shirts at the AGM, or the organisation of a silent bloc that suddenly bursts into action and derails the agenda of a meeting. Activist-shareholders are moles in the system. Granted they are very visible roles, and it is soon very obvious as to why they have bought shares in a corporation whose practices they oppose, but still. yay for the little man.

Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News is one such activist shareholder. He made the reasonable proposal that private prisons make attempts to rehabilitate prisoners. Shock horror! And, guess what? The private prison company refused.

I just adore these tactics. If the prison industrial complex is to be dismantled it’ll take an untold amount of imagination and the combination of many tactics. Friedmann’s colleague at Prison Legal News Paul Wright was on hand this week to remind us that talking about the problem is not always doing something about the problem. Wright spoke with Alysia Santo for The Marshall Project, in a provocatively titled interview piece Sure, People Are Talking About Prison Reform, but They Aren’t Actually Doing Anything.

Go forth, let your imagination run wild.

Below, the Human Rights Defense Center press release:

Nation’s Largest Private Prison Firm Objects to Resolution to Fund Rehabilitative, Reentry Programs

Nashville, TN – Last Friday, Corrections Corporation of America (NYSE: CXW), the nation’s largest for-profit prison firm, formally objected to a shareholder resolution that would require the company to spend just 5% of its net income “on programs and services designed to reduce recidivism rates for offenders.”

The resolution was submitted by Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News. An activist shareholder, Friedmann owns a small amount of CCA stock; in the 1990s he served six years at a CCA-operated prison in Clifton, Tennessee prior to his release in 1999.

“As a former prisoner, I know firsthand the importance of providing rehabilitative programs and reentry services,” Friedmann stated. “I also know firsthand the incentive of private prisons to cut costs – including expenses associated with rehabilitative programs – in order to increase their profit margins.”

Citing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the resolution notes that “Recidivism rates for prisoners released from correctional facilities are extremely high, with almost 77% of offenders being re-arrested within five years of release.” Further, “[t]he need to reduce recidivism rates for offenders held in [CCA’s] facilities is of particular importance, as two recent studies concluded that prisoners housed at privately-operated facilities have higher average recidivism rates.”

The shareholder resolution states that it “provides an opportunity for CCA to do more to reduce the recidivism rates of offenders released from the Company’s facilities, and thus reduce crime and victimization in our communities.”

CCA filed a formal objection with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), seeking to exclude the resolution from its 2015 proxy materials distributed to shareholders. In its objection, CCA argued that the resolution relates to “ordinary business operations,” comparing it to other shareholder resolutions that have, for example, sought to require companies to “test and install showerheads that use limited amounts of water.”

In a press release issued by CCA last year, the company announced “a series of commitments” to rehabilitative programming, stating it would “play a larger role in helping reduce the nation’s high recidivism rate.” At the time, CCA CEO Damon Hininger claimed that “Reentry programs and reducing recidivism are 100 percent aligned with our business model.”

“CCA’s objection to a shareholder resolution that would require the company to spend just 5% of its net income on rehabilitative and reentry programs demonstrates the lack of the company’s sincerity when it claims to care about reducing recidivism,” stated HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “Evidently, retaining 95% of its profits isn’t enough for CCA – which isn’t surprising, because as a for-profit company CCA is only concerned about its bottom line, not what is best for members of the public, including those victimized by crime.”

“If CCA was serious about investing in rehabilitation and reentry programs for prisoners who will be released from the company’s for-profit facilities, then it would not have objected to this resolution,” Friedmann added. “But it did, so we can draw our own conclusions.”

The Human Rights Defense Center, founded in 1990 and based in Lake Worth, Florida, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has around 9,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.

For further information:
 

Alex Friedmann
Associate Director
Human Rights Defense Center
(615) 495-6568
afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org

Paul Wright
Executive Director
Human Rights Defense Center
(561) 360-2523
pwright@prisonlegalnews.org

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Image source: ACLU

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Three months ago, I wrote about Silja Talvi‘s excellent book Women Behind Bars.

It turns out the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also noticed it. They banned it – along with another book, Perpetual Prison Machine by Joel Dyer. Both books are distributed by Prison Legal News – a phenomenal non-profit based here in Seattle that educates America’s incarcerated class on its human and legal rights.

Prison Legal News has launched a lawsuit against staff and senior officials of the TDCJ. Money is not as issue here, principle is. “PLN is seeking compensatory, punitive and nominal damages plus declaratory and injunctive relief for violation of its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as attorney fees and costs.”

“It is a sad commentary when government officials censor books sent to prisoners – particularly books that deal with prisoners’ rights and conditions in our nation’s prisons,” stated PLN editor Paul Wright. “Apparently, the TDCJ prefers that prisoners remain uninformed about issues that directly affect them. We believe this is a poor rationale for censorship.”

WHAT TO DO

Visit Change.org and read my brief article.

Download the full PLN lawsuit (PDF).

Sign the petition to the TDCJ for reversal of their censorship policy.

EMAIL

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