People of Color Poisoned By Pollution and Prisons

by Panagioti Tsolkas /

According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences published in March, people of color breathe in far more deadly air pollution than they are responsible for making. This news may not come as a surprise to many following the environmental justice movement, perhaps the shock is that the story circulated widely enough to reach into a solitary confinement cell in the prison town of Beeville, Texas, where it found prisoner activists Malik Washington.

Despite the extreme isolation Washington faces in TDCJ’s McConnell Unit (as a result of his advocacy efforts in the state prison system, and his alleged participation in the national prison strikes), the significance of the scientific report resonated with him. He didn’t have to look far to see it play out. The same month the report was released, two environmental disasters occurred just northeast of him, in the Houston area, belching plumes of black smoke into surrounding communities. (The ITC oil refinery burned for four days, two weeks later the KMCO plant also went up in flames.)

refinery disaster pollution over school in Houston 2019
Both pictures here are from the petrochemical fire at Intercontinental Terminals Company which started on March 18, 2019. Deer Park High School closed following the fire that burned for four days. Photo: Elizabeth Conley/ Houston Chronicle

Although Washington has philosophical sympathies with the environmental movement, he also has a unique perspective as a prisoner. For starters, the racial disparities in prison populations seem to mirror the pollution studies.

According to an updated report by the Pew Research Center released last week, “The racial and ethnic makeup of U.S. prisons continues to look substantially different from the demographics of the country as a whole. In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. And while Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population, they accounted for 23% of inmates.”

[Note: Neither of these studies looked at economic class, but if you took a wild guess that rich white people see drastically less prison and pollution, I’d place my bets on it.]


But it’s not just prison populations with a long history of vast racial disparity.

Last month Washington Post writer Radley Balko added 21 more reports indicating racial bias in all aspects of the criminal justice system, bringing the total to 141.

“The studies covered nearly every nook and cranny of our carceral system — from police to prosecutors to prisons; from misdemeanor offenses to the death penalty; from sentencing to parole; and from youth offenses to plea bargaining to clemency. The post also included nine studies I could find that suggested racial bias was not a factor in some part of the criminal-justice system” [Note: Yes, 9 out of 141]

Looking at studies such as these side by side, assessing disparities of pollution, policing and prison, is a growing field of research, advocacy and activism, spurring the growth of an eco-abolitionist movement. This intersection of issues is the foundation of the fourth annual Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence, occurring June 14 – 17 in Gainesville, Florida.

Examples of this compounded prison/pollution racial disparity has become apparent in a number of recent, glaring examples. Here are a few:

  1. Extreme heat and arsenic tainted water in Texas prisons that led a federal judge to rule against the state, requiring an alternative water source;
  2. A proposed federal prison in Kentucky, on top of a former coal strip mine, next to a coal sludge impoundment, in an area with reported toxic contamination in the soil and water;
  3. A massive proposed phosphate strip mine in North Florida, which would surround the Lake Butler Medical and Reception Center prison, housing prisoners who already have health problems (and are already next door to a landfill).

We hope you’ll join us in Florida to find out more and get involved.

Excerpt from Malik
Excerpt from TX prisoner Malik Washington’s recent letter to Fight Toxic Prisons

From the Associated Press article that caught Malik’s attention:

Blacks, Hispanics breathe more pollution than they make

by Seth Borenstein

African-Americans and Hispanics breathe in far more deadly air pollution than they are responsible for making, a new study said.

A study looked at who is exposed to fine particle pollution — responsible for about 100,000 American deaths a year — and how much different races are responsible for the pollution based on their buying, driving and living habits.

Scientists calculate that Hispanics on average breathe in 63 percent more of the pollution that leads to heart and breathing deaths than they make. For African-Americans the figure is 56 percent, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

On the other hand, non-Hispanic whites on average are exposed to 17 percent less air pollution than they make.

“Even though minorities are contributing less to the overall problem of air pollution, they are affected by it more,” said study co-author Jason Hill, a biosystems engineering professor at the University of Minnesota who is white. “Is it fair (that) I create more pollution and somebody else is disproportionately affected by it?”

This pollution comes from gases from smokestacks, tailpipes and other places that then solidify into fine invisible particles small enough to pass through lungs and into bloodstreams. These particles, more than 25 times smaller than the width of a human hair, pose the greatest risk to people’s health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

While other studies have shown minorities living with more pollution, this study is one of the first to combine buying habits and exposure into one calculation of inequity, Hill said.

Hill and colleagues looked at pollution from highways, coal-fired power plants, hog farms and other sources.

They then looked in a large scale at who is driving more, buying more goods and food, spending more on property and using more electricity, then traced those purchases to end users.

“On average whites tend to consume more than minorities. It’s because of wealth,” Hill said. “It’s largely how much you buy, not buying different things.”

Of 103,000 particle pollution deaths a year, 83,000 can be traced to the activities of people in the United States — not government and not goods exported elsewhere, the study said

Several outside experts praised the research.

“These findings confirm what most grassroots environmental justice leaders have known for decades, ‘whites are dumping their pollution on poor people and people of color’,” said Texas Southern University public affairs professor Robert Bullard, who was not part of the research. Bullard, often called the father of environmental justice , is African-American.

Bullard said his and other past research shows that African-Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live where industrial pollution is highest, with people of color overrepresented near Superfund sites and oil refineries.

He said there are far more mostly minority schools within 500 feet of major highways than mostly white schools.

“Being able to quantify the inequity is a key step toward addressing and reducing inequity,” said Christopher Frey, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University, who is white and not part of the research.

One bright spot is that in recent decades the air has been getting cleaner in general, Hill said. However, his study stopped in 2015 and EPA data shows an uptick in fine particle pollution in 2017. But even with the cleaner air, it is still inequitable, Hill said.

CFRC and Stanton Coal Plant
Another example of the prison/pollution dilemma: residents of east Orange County (Orlando, FL) filed a class action lawsuit last month indicating that local coal-burning power plants have poisoned their homes and public spaces.

FDOC’s Central FL Reception Center, a complex of prisons warehousing over 3,000 people, specifically including prisoners in the region with medical conditions, is the coal plants’ closest neighbor. As the image below indicates, the prison is about a mile as the wind blows.

From the lawsuit: “The danger of such exposure is borne out by an epidemiologic analysis based on data from the Florida Cancer Disease Registry and a site investigation, which found a higher incidence of, for instance, pediatric brain and blood cancers including two exceedingly rare pediatric brain cancers,” states the lawsuit by Cohen Milstein, a national firm that specializes in cases of environmental threats to communities.

“The only source of these cancer-causing Contaminates is the Stanton Power Plant, which has a unique Contaminate fingerprint.”

Read an article about the class action lawsuit here:,amp.html

Oil refinery in UT 2018
Oil refinery near Salt Lake City, Utah, 2018.

Shocking Video of Toxic Conditions Emerges out of Lieber Correctional Institution, South Carolina


Shocking footage has emerged from inside Lieber Correctional Institution in South Carolina. Orange water from the running faucet and sewage water flooding cells were captured on video from inside of the prison which is known for human rights violations of the people incarcerated there.

Lieber CI has been on an indefinite lock-down since April 2018. Inmate’s windows have been blotted out by storm shutters and calls to SCDC and the warden’s office have yielded only defensiveness and aggression, “Those shutters aren’t coming down! They can see rays of light through the slats.”

Concerned masses have flooded the institution with calls only to be hung up on, screamed at and delivered terse narratives that “the inmates are liars.” Denying clean drinking water and forced exposure to sewage while caged, which puts the incarcerated population at risk for a Hepatitis A [HAV] outbreak, are blatant and severe human rights violations that need to be addressed NOW.

Video Still
Still from Lieber video of discolored running faucet water.

Incarcerated populations are already particularly vulnerable for contracting HAV, Hepatitis A is spread through contact with feces of infected persons or through contaminated food or water. Drug users, individuals experiencing homelessness, people in prison and people who live in unsanitary conditions are at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

It is clear through numerous phone zaps placing pressure on those who create and exacerbate unsafe conditions for the incarcerated inside of Lieber that they are well aware of the violations they continue to commit.  Warden Randall Williams’ office has been particularly adversarial and hostile towards anyone asserting that rights of inmates be recognized.

These operations are under the watch of South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster who, like Warden Williams, has been consistently made aware of right’s violations inside of Lieber, yet violations continue unabated.

An ongoing campaign demanding an end to the indefinite lock-down continues.  Meanwhile, in the silent space of failed response from every complicit institution in this disaster, inmates have died from deadly violence and suicide in the anxiety and trauma-inducing 24-7 conditions they are forced to exist within.

Institutions committing these abuses must be continually exposed and confronted until violations cease, clean water is restored and dignity is recognized.

URGENT: Hurricane Florence Phone Zap


(A potential Advanced Forecast to show the size of Florence).


Please Continue to call and DEMAND  South Carolina Prisoner have access to clean water!!! Reports from the inside per Jail Lawyers Speak: The biggest complaints of prisoners are power outages and water that is brown or greenish in Evans Corr and Lieber. They are not receiving water in Columbia and they also say a damn broke, which resulted in greenish or brown water.




South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster (@HenryMcMaster, 803-734-2100) continues to refuse to evacuate state prisoners, including those in the evacuation zone. Federal Prisons have only given vague answers that they “are prepared” and say they can give no details due to “security reasons.” Both North Carolina and Virginia have stated they now have plans to evacuate prisoners within the projected path of Hurricane Florence*. We must continue to pressure them to ensure they meet our demands! We’ve prioritized South Carolina numbers for state and county facilities below.

*Florida said the same thing after we pressured them to evacuate prisoners during Irma last year, yet left thousands of prisoners in it’s path. If nothing else, let VA and NC know we are watching.

Hurricane Florence Phone Zap

As Hurricane Florence barrels towards the East Coast 170,000 people behind bars lie directly in it’s path with no ability to evacuate in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

We need your help putting pressure on each state to ensure the horrors that happened at FCI Beaumont during Hurricane Harvey don’t happen again. Already one prison we know of in a flood zone is refusing to evacuate.


  1. Immediate evacuation of all prisoners from every State and Federal Prison, and County Jail at risk of flooding.
  2. Stockpiling of Water and Food at every facility that may be impacted by power outages.

When you get a response tweet @FightXPrisons! (Or email

If you can, record the phone call and email it to us. If it turns out they’re lying, we’ll have voice-recorded evidence.

Also, we don’t trust ANY Department of Corrections. Per Jailhouse Lawyers Speak’s advice, “If you know any prisoners in this storm path, it’s important to tell them to fill up any containers or bags with water NOW!! Prisons are notorious for not giving adequate drinking water to prisoners if any at all after the water is contaminated.”


There’s a lot of numbers so maybe get with some friends and divide up!

Numbers to Call

(This is all on Eastern Standard Time- If you’re on the West coast call early!)

South Carolina Department of Corrections (Twitter- @SCDCNews)

UPDATE: Jailhouse Lawyers Speak has confirmed with prisoners inside Ridgeland Correctional and Lieber Correctional that they are NOT being evacuated. Ridgeland has told phone-zappers it’s not moving people without orders from the Governor or the Director of Prisons. We’ve updated the below numbers accordingly!

Governor’s Office (803) 734-2100 and Twitter @HenryMcMaster

Legislative Liaison/Special Assistant to the Director, Dexter Lee: 803-896-1731

Jasper, Colleton, and Beaufort County’s in Southern SC are not under mandatory evacuation but SC Emergency Management Division retweeted a tweet from Horry County EMD telling residents of those counties to evacuate. Additionally, the Governor told residents of those counties in a live press-briefing 9/12 to leave if they can. Information for those county jails:

Beaufort County Detention Center  (843) 255-5200

Colleton County Jail  (843) 549-5742

Colleton County Sheriff Administration  (843) 549-2211

Jasper County Detention Center  (843) 717-3300  (Reports indicate they may have already evacuated) 

Federal Bureau of Prisons

Mid Atlantic Regional Office (North Carolina and Virginia)  (301) 317-3100

Southeastern Regional Office (South Carolina) (678) 686-1200

North Carolina Department of “Public Safety”  (Twitter- @NCPublicSafety)

DOPS General Line 919-733-2126

Department of Correction General Line (919) 838-4000

Ask to speak to Director Lassiter’s Office.

Virginia Department of Corrections (Twitter- @VADOC)

General Number- 804-674-3000

Press 0 at the menu and ask to be transferred to the director’s administrative assistant.


Prison Abolitionists Rally for Human and Environmental Health at Pittsburgh Polluters’ Offices


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — On the heels of the 3rd Annual Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence, dozens of organizers, community members, and friends and family of currently- and formerly-incarcerated peoples marched through downtown Pittsburgh, making stops at the headquarters of EQT and ending at a power plant belonging to coal utility NRG Energy on the North Side. The demonstration concludes a weekend of lectures, workshops, and discussion about mass incarceration and its links to environmental health.

EQT Corporation, a major oil and gas company notorious for poisoning drinking water supplies across rural Appalachia, is one of the largest companies involved in fracking, with 793 active wells in Pennsylvania alone. They’re also one of the top ten worst polluters in the industry, according to a 2015 report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 2012, EQT received several charges for water pollution and disturbance of waterways, and a $1.1 million fine for poisoning drinking water supply sources through a shale pit leak at Rock Run in Tioga County, PA, and has received several other fines, violations, and complaints as well.


The march culminated in a rally at the NRG Energy Center calling attention to the health and human rights atrocities occurring at SCI Fayette, a state-run prison that currently houses 2,176 inmates. SCI Fayette was built in 2003, directly on top of a toxic coal ash dump that has been in operation for decades, receiving millions of tons of waste from coal processing companies, including NRG.

The inmate population of SCI Fayette, and the surrounding community of Labelle, PA, have reported alarmingly high rates of health issues linked to the ash that blows off the dumping site and into the surrounding air.


Richard Mosley, a member of Fayette Health Justice and Put People First PA and a former prisoner at Fayette, spoke to the crowd via telephone about his experiences there, including respiratory ailments and medical neglect. “I was admitted into the infirmary well over 10 times and at medical at least 40 times during my four years at SCI Fayette. My weight dropped down from 225lbs to 170lbs. I got so sick at one point that I kept a letter with me to send to my family in case I died.”


Other speakers at the rally highlighted campaigns and organizations working alongside and on behalf of prisoners everywhere, including Shandre Delaney (pictured) of Human Rights Coalition (HRC), a prisoner-led human rights organization based in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, PA. HRC was a local host of the Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence.

Speaking to the crowd, Ms. Delaney said “HRC believes that it is critically important that prisoners are treated with humanity in every aspect of their incarceration. A prison sentence should not become a death sentence because of the lack of healthcare or the access to legal remedy or complaint of their treatment.”

HRC is involved in drafting legislation to end solitary confinement in Pennsylvania, as well as highlighting ongoing cases of abuse behind prison walls. They were also involved in co-producing a report on the toxic conditions at SCI Fayette with the Abolitionist Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit based in Pittsburgh.


More information about the Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence can be found at: