America’s Toxic Prisons

America’s Toxic Prisons
May 5, 2020 No Comments Environment and Health Ariel Sykes

America’s Toxic Prisons: The Ethics of Prison Construction in Highly Polluted Areas

By Jenna Smith

“I suffered almost every day of the 15 months I was at that prison… it became clear to me that I [was] being left for dead… With no other course to take or relief in sight I called my brother and told him that I don’t believe I’m going to make it… and to please take care of my son.” These are the words of Marcus Santos, a formerly incarcerated man at a prison in Pennsylvania, located only a thousand feet from a coal waste facility. In the quote, he describes his experience being incarcerated in a “Toxic Prison.” Unfortunately, his experience is not unique. Thousands of prisoners across the United States are currently incarcerated in prisons surrounded by environmental pollutants that are detrimental to their health and safety. As the number of prisoners has skyrocketed in the United States over the past several decades, the number of prisons has increased as well. This demand for new prisons, the need for affordable land, and local “Not In My Backyard” movements in high-income communities have led to prison construction hazardous locations. As many activist groups and civilians have become aware of the epidemic of toxic prisons, a great debate has sparked regarding the proper course of action to eliminate them. 

Additionally, people have questioned whether or not it is necessary that they are eliminated at all. The discussion of these issues begs the questions: What rights do prisoners sacrifice when they commit a crime? Is it fair for the incarcerated to have a greater assurance of safety than the general public? Is prison construction in polluted environments in? “America’s Toxic Prisons: The Ethics of Prison Construction in Highly Polluted Areas,” answers each of these questions and more. Through an exploration of the values of justice, safety, responsibility, and the principle of non-maleficence, this paper unravels the complex ethical implications of toxic prisons.

Table of Contents


“I suffered almost every day of the 15 months I was at that prison… it became clear to me that I [was] being left for dead… With no other course to take or relief in sight I called my brother and told him that I don’t believe I’m going to make it through the rest of my time and to please take care of my son.”


These are the words of Marcus Santos, a former prisoner at State Correctional Institution Fayette in La Belle, Pennsylvania. From an outsider’s perspective, SCI Fayette might seem unremarkable, presentable, and an appropriate location to serve one’s sentence. However, in reality, Fayette’s air and water essentially poisons its residents, as it is surrounded by approximately 40 million tons of coal waste. Anecdotes such as Santos’s are not unique. He is one of the many prisoners across America who has served their sentence in what is colloquially known as a “Toxic Prison,” or a prison that is in close proximity to high amounts of pollution. This paper will address the ethical concerns that Toxic Prisons in the United States pose to society. More specifically, this paper will explore whether it is ethical for prisons to be constructed in polluted environments and whether it is ethical for the incarcerated to be more exposed to pollution than the average person based on the values of safety, responsibility, and the principle of non-maleficence.

Background on the Health, Economic, and Societal Implications of Toxic Prisons

It is a commonly known fact that the United States is in the midst of a crisis of mass-incarceration and overcriminalization (Heritage). Over the past forty years, its incarceration rate has increased over 500% and, according to a study conducted by the Sentencing Project, is currently the world’s leader in incarceration (Fact Sheet). The rapid increase in incarceration rates has demanded the construction of new prisons across the country. But the question arises: Where do we put them? This is an inquiry routinely faced by policymakers across the United States. In order to address this question and its surrounding implications, we must first establish of the role and impact of toxins prisons in modern society.

As articulated above, a “toxic prison” is a correctional facility located in close proximity to a hazardous quantity of environmental pollutants. One of the most notable examples of a US toxic prison is the Fayette State Correctional Institution located in Labelle, Pennsylvania pictured below.

Source: McDaniel

As demonstrated on the map above, the prison (SCI Fayette) is located only about 1,000 feet from a coal waste facility of roughly the same size. Prisons in such close proximity to an environmental pollutant are much more common than one might think. One cartography study found that approximately 32% of the federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund site (Williams), defined as designated contaminated sites with long-term clean-up plans, headed by the EPA (What Is…). Facilities of this nature often harm their inhabitants through the transfer of coal ash remnants into their bodies. These coal ash waste facilities extremely common, given the prevalence of coal and fossil fuel usage in the US. As of 2018, approximately 27.4% of electricity in the US was derived from a coal-powered plant (What is U.S. Electricity…). When these plants complete the process of using the coal to produce fossil fuel energy, the excess coal is transferred to a coal waste facility. There, the pieces of coal are in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time.

“Coal ash commonly contains some of the earth’s deadliest toxins: arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium.”

-Physicians for Social Responsibility

When these substances are present in a high concentration, they rub against each other, producing small flecks of fly ash. The minuscule size of fly ash allows it to be picked up by the wind and transported through the air. This often results in the fly ash being inhaled by those in the surrounding area or contamination of the local water supply. Without a proper sanitation system, fly ash and all of its associated toxins occupy the community’s drinking water.

The severity of one’s reaction to their surrounding environmental pollutants is heavily dependent on the type of interaction they have with the materials and the length of time in which they are exposed. The different reactions can be categorized as the result of either “low-level” or “high-level” exposure. Typically low-level exposure is defined as indirect interaction with substances, such as the way that the incarcerated interact with them. This type of exposure often results in temporary yet severe ailments such as dizziness, vomiting, bloody bodily fluids, skin rashes, seizures, migraines, or respiratory infections. Contrastingly, high-level exposure is considered direct contact with the materials, such as the way employees at the hazardous waste facilities come in contact with the materials. It often results in irreversible damage, prompting the development of cancers, lung disease, or thyroid disorders. Additionally, it can cause damage to one’s immune, reproductive, and nervous systems. While low-level and high-level exposure typically yield different results, when an individual experiences low-level exposure over an extended length of time (i.e., months, years,), the resulting consequences are virtually the same as those of high-level exposure (Physicians for Social Responsibility). The drastic health consequences that often result from residence in a toxic prison, where people are consistently exposed to hazardous pollutants for decades at a time, have raised concerns regarding their prevalence across the US. The rapid increase in the presence of toxic prisons has led many to question the reasoning for their construction. As with most issues concerning public works development, toxic prison construction is often motivated by economic factors.

As articulated in the notable research report “The Determinants of Prison Location: Do Policymakers use the Prison Industry for Economic Development?” when prisons are constructed in high income urban or suburban environments, they typically have a greater negative impact on the community than a positive one. Unlike other public works projects (i.e., parks, schools, etc.), prison construction often lowers the property values of neighboring locations, while raising taxes for the citizens. Additionally, appearance-based considerations come into play when determining a prison’s location (Huling). This is a result of the fact that prisons are considered often an eyesore and have the potential to damage the public perception of its surrounding area, as they can connote criminality and danger. The concerns regarding the impact of prison construction often raise outcry and chants of “Not In My Backyard” from local residents. However, as stated in the aforementioned research paper:

“If the chants of ‘not in my backyard’ are heard, the demonstrator’s backyard is likely within a prosperous neighborhood.”

Kunce Cherry

In lower-income communities, prison construction has recently been used to stimulate economic development (Tootle), as prison construction provides both short term and long term career opportunities. In the short term, a major construction project can provide a large amount of jobs for local construction workers. In the long term, the day-to-day demands of running a correctional facility provide a host of jobs (i.e., nurses, correctional officers, cooks, etc.) to the local community. The jobs that these facilities provide are often not in high-demand in high-income communities. As a result of the differences in employment demands, high-income communities receive little to none of the economic benefits that low-income communities receive from prison construction. Similarly, the construction of hazardous waste facilities also results in decreased property value and the association of danger in high-income communities. However, in low-income areas, they provide significant employment opportunities to the community. Therefore, based on the economic benefits of construction prisons and hazardous waste facilities in similar environments, facilities of this nature are often built in close proximity to each other (Cherry).

Justice and Sacrificing Safety

In order to fully understand the crisis of toxic prisons in the United States, one must evaluate, not only the physical consequences of their existence, but their moral and ethical implications as well. The ethical conversation regarding Toxic Prisons frequently and naturally gravitates towards a discussion of safety. Generally, people do not sacrifice their right to safety simply because they are convicted of a crime. This rudimentary idea is demonstrated by both the actions and the vocalized goals of various governmental bodies influencing the structure of the prison system. For example, correctional facilities act upon their goal of maintaining a standard of safety for their prisoners by employing correctional officers who are employed to maintain peace and order in the facility. Additionally, governmental organizations, such as the Bureau of Prisons, address the safety of prisoners in their mission statement, which reads:

“The mission of the BOP is to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, [and] cost-efficient…”

Bureau of Prisons

However, despite what is written on paper and the elementary safety precautions in place, there appears to be a discrepancy between the theoretical protection of inmates’ welfare and the reality of the treatment of many incarcerated people. It could be argued that the way in which imprisonment in a toxic facility often results in long-lasting health consequences, the health and safety of the incarcerated is not valued within the current system. Not only is the severity of the consequence unethical because it disregards the value of safety, but it is also unethical because it places an undue hardship on the incarcerated for them to suffer greater consequences than what they have been sentenced.

Despite this, there are many instances of the incarcerated suffering further consequences than what they are sentenced. For instance, in the vast majority of states across the country, convicted felons have a major aspect of their citizenship — their voting rights — stripped from them, sometimes permanently. This is evidenced by a study conducted by the Sentencing Project which found that 48 of the 50 states practice some form of felon disenfranchisement (Chung). Similarly, depending on one’s crime and state, they can lose access to food stamps and student loans, which are two governmental assistance programs that could help them begin a better life for themselves post-incarceration (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Students with Criminal Convictions). This is an example of a major governmental consequence that millions of formerly incarcerated people across the United States face that can extend beyond the time constraints of their incarceration. This continuous punishment is inherently unethical because once an individual has served their sentence and paid their debt to society, the most ethical course of action is to relieve them of any further institutional punishment. Similar to the loss of access to governmental services, the health consequences of toxic prisons unfairly harm the formerly incarcerated for long after one’s sentence is completed. As mentioned previously, the effects of high-level exposure (ex. cancers, lung disease, etc.), can severely impair one’s quality of life after incarceration and, in some cases, can shorten their lifespan. This consequence of incarceration in a toxic prison is much crueler and long-lasting than originally intended when the convicted person was sentenced. These extensive consequences are unethical based on the fact that they violate the constraints of the original conviction and unduly punish the incarcerated. If we were to deem toxic prisons ethically permissible and continue their operation, we would simply add to the number of systems, such as felon disenfranchisement, that place unjustified burdens on prisoners that currently exist in our society.

When evaluating whether or not sacrificing safety is ethical, the primary purpose of prison must be taken into account. Given the limited scope of this paper, it will not attempt to determine what the primary focus of incarceration should be. Instead, the two main focuses — rehabilitation and punishment — will be evaluated in relation to incarceration in toxic prisons. From a logical standpoint, if one believes that the primary purpose of prison is rehabilitation, then jeopardizing their health and safety during incarceration is counterintuitive. Part of the process of rehabilitation is to prepare the individual to function and sustain themselves when they are released. Despite this goal, toxic prisons burden incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals with disabilities that would hinder them from working, reintegrating into the community from which they came, and becoming contributing members of society. Therefore, the goal of rehabilitation is not fully achieved. From a deontological standpoint, if one believes that the primary purpose of prison is punishment, it still must be acknowledged that certain forms of punishment are inherently unethical. For instance, torture is often considered a violation of basic human decency and, therefore, should not be used as a method of punishment or interrogation.

Torture is generally defined as: “the infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering for a purpose.”


It could be argued, that the conscious placement of an individual into a polluted correction facility where their health and safety has the high likelihood of being severely impaired is a form of torture and, therefore, is unethical.

Responsibility in Upholding Human Rights

While various documents throughout history have contributed to the concept of basic human rights, such as the Magna Carta (1215) and the “French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” (1789), one of the most prominent symbols of the modern global human rights movement is the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1948) established in conjunction with the United Nations. While the relevance of Human Rights in modern society extends far from the UN and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the wide-reaching and principle-based nature of document allows it to serve as a strong representative for a global human rights standard. As stated by the United Nations, this declaration serves the purpose of setting:

“A common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

-United Nations

When discussing the issue of Toxic Prisons, there is often speculation as to whether or not their existence is a violation of the fundamental human rights of the incarcerated. In order to address this speculation, it needs to be determined whether or not the imprisoned are entitled to the same rights as those who are not imprisoned. As the word “human” is present in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” it implies that the listed rights extend to every person on the planet, including the incarcerated. In fact, there is no language in the document limiting who is entitled to the listed rights. Article 2 of the document explicitly states:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

-Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Despite the fact that the document establishes the presence of human rights among the incarcerated, it could be argued that the existence of Toxic Prisons does not violate human rights standards because language addressing environmental rights is extremely limited. There is no language in the document stating that people are automatically granted the right to an environment that is free of toxic pollutants. Although, Article 13 grants:

“the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”

-Article 13, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Therefore, in theory, individuals can leave a community heavily affected by pollution in order to preserve their health and safety, if they so choose. However, prisoners do not have that autonomy. While, as stated in the Declaration, no one’s rights can be completely stripped from them, when one commits an act that “works against the good of society” by committing a crime that is non-political, their rights can be restricted. One of the rights restricted is freedom of movement, as their residence is determined by the state. Since prisoners lose many aspects of their autonomy and no longer have the ability to make decisions that promote their own health and safety, that burden falls on the shoulders of the government. Not only is this an implicit burden, but it is explicitly stated in Article 25 of the Declaration:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Article 21, Draft Committee

Some might argue that the phrase “beyond his control” disqualifies the incarcerated from being protected by the language of the amendment above. This conclusion can be drawn because when a person commits a crime, they act autonomously and should be the sole party responsible for the consequences of that crime. It can be argued that when one willingly violates the rules of a civil society, they must be held accountable for their actions through the sacrifice of some of the rights and freedoms that the society provides. Therefore, the incarceration of prisoners is within their control and they are not protected by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, this argument can be invalidated by the simple fact that the causes and circumstances of a person’s incarceration are often beyond their absolute control. Various studies have indicated that between 1% and 5% of all prisoners in the United States are innocent (How many Innocent…). A wrongful conviction certainly qualifies as a situation beyond one’s control. Additionally, in the event that the person imprisoned is guilty of the crime of which they were convicted, heavily influencing factors beyond one’s control such as financial insecurity or bias within the criminal justice system could have affected their actions and/or sentence. Given this conclusion that the external influences that often prompt incarceration are “beyond one’s control,” it can be concluded that the incarcerated are entitled to the right “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself,” (Draft Committee)Given the fact that this paper primarily focuses on public prisons, it can be concluded that the government is responsible for shouldering the burden of providing the health and well-being of those that they incarcerate.

This burden acquired by the government when they imprison an individual is also supported by the fact that the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is generally regarded as an ideal standard at which nations that belong to the UN are expected to perform. While member nations to do not always uphold these standards, the general assumption is that if a nation is able to uphold these standards, then they should. It can be argued that some of the most influential nations involved in the UN, specifically the US, have a greater responsibility to uphold these principles as a result of the position of power that they hold and the influence that they have over the rest of the world. In addition to the largely symbolic and idealistic responsibility that the US government has to uphold basic standards of human rights, those who construct, own, and operate toxic prisons have a responsibility to uphold the Human Rights standards. More specifically, the policymakers and similar stakeholders who play a role in determining prison location have a major responsibility to make decisions that do not harm the prisoners that their decisions affect.

Despite this reasoning, some critics argue that prisons cannot be reasonably expected to prevent the development of their prisoners’ health concerns. I agree that, in certain instances, prisons cannot be considered responsible for the development of their prisoners’ health defects. In the event that a prison exhausted all reasonable measures of preventing the ailment from developing, then it should not be considered responsible for its occurrence. In order to determine whether or not the prison fulfilled its reasonable responsibility in preventing the negative event (i.e., health consequences) from occurring, we must determine whether the event is unique to the prison and preventable or if it is common to the outside world and unavoidable. For instance, in the event that a common cold was being spread through the facility, as a result of the prisoners’ proximity to each other, the prison should not be considered responsible for its spread. However, they are only devoid of responsibility if the prison provided adequate sanitation and healthcare in order to do everything within their power to prevent the disease from spreading. Even if the prison fulfilled their responsibility of distributing adequate treatment to the sick, disease still has the potential to spread. Contagious diseases constantly spread in the world outside of prison walls– they are an inevitability but can be reduced if appropriately handled.

The difference between a prison’s liability for an inmate contracting a common cold as opposed to an inmate developing cancer as a result of consistent exposure to coal waste is that the former is arguably unavoidable. In the case of toxic prisons, it is not an inevitability that the facility is constructed with constant exposure to pollutants– it is a conscious decision made by those selecting the prison location. This conscious disregard for the health and safety of the incarcerated makes those responsible for selecting prison locations and those responsible for cleaning Superfund sites but do not act upon said responsibility ethically responsible for the prisoners’ lack of well-being.

Considering Nonmaleficence

When considering the principle of nonmaleficence, we must address the discrepancy between the abilities of differing subsections of the populations to live in a safe and healthy environments. As mentioned earlier, people in predominantly lower-income communities are subjected to having public works projects such as toxic waste facilities and prisons built in close proximity to them. These are everyday civilians who are subjected to harsh environmental conditions. Yet, there is no right or rule of law protecting them from being in close proximity to such a large amount of pollutants. This is because, in theory, individuals who reside in these neighborhoods are entitled to freedom of movement and could move away from these pollutants.

However, in reality, this is not an option for most people. They are prisoners of their environment as well. However, their bars are not steel– they are often financial. A prime example of this infamous water crisis currently occurring in Flint Michigan. In 2014, Flint, Michigan began using water from the lead-infected Flint River as its primary water source. This decision has resulted in the development of conditions such as severe skin rashes, lead poisoning, and Legionnaires disease. Despite the media attention that the city has received and the widespread demands for reform, over five years after the start of the epidemic, many of the city’s residents still do not have access to clean water. Most families continue to purchase bottled water and stand in line at water distribution centers in order to sustain themselves. Other individuals have been able to move away from Flint to neighboring cities free of contamination (Sanburn).

It is neither fair nor just for the residents of certain neighborhoods to have to move from their homes in order to have access to a safe environment. One who opposes reformation of toxic prisons could argue that since law-abiding citizens in communities such as Flint do not have access to clean water, those who are incarcerated should not be guaranteed that right either. Guaranteeing a clean environment to the incarcerated but not to those living in environmentally distraught communities could, arguably, be considered preferential treatment for the incarcerated.

While the concerns raised by members of communities located in contaminated environments are certainly valid, the aforementioned argument is blatantly ethically problematic based on the principle of non-maleficence. Essentially, when it is argued that a safe environment shouldn’t be guaranteed to the incarcerated, it is argued that simply because everyone can’t be saved, no one should. Approaching this conversation with an “all-or-nothing” mindset can be dangerous and dismisses the value of minimizing total harm.


When exploring the ethical implications of toxic prisons, this paper first finds that the safety of an individual, regardless of whether they are incarcerated, should never be jeopardized, especially by a governmental organization that holds the responsibility of protecting them. Additionally, given that removing someone’s access to health and safety could be considered torture, a person’s incarceration in a toxic prison disregards the deontological idea that torture is inherently unethical. Next, the paper discusses the responsibility of the government to uphold a basic standard of human rights for all that lie within its borders. Using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a measure for the standard of treatment that a government ought to strive for, this paper finds that the United States government is not presently fulfilling its reasonable responsibility to protect the human rights of its people. Finally, the paper explores the value of nonmaleficence, concluding that safe environmental conditions for the incarcerated should be ensured, despite the fact that this cannot be a reality for all people.

While the above discussion of toxic prisons has mainly been theoretical, the next discussion will address a tangible solution to the problem at hand. Given the various nuances involved in determining optimal prison location, it is difficult to determine how potential replacement systems would function. In order to begin the process of eliminating the presence of Toxic Prisons in American society, I recommend a two-pronged approach: widespread decarceration and the increased delegation of resources to superfund clean-up.

Decarceration efforts can be realized through both methods of prevention and correction. For instance, measures, such as the adjustment of penalties according to the crime seriousness, the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing, and the act of providing “engagement with community service providers and employers before release from prison” have led the charge in US decarceration efforts. These examples represent a small portion of the efforts that have been made and resulted in a 14-25% reduction in the prison population in Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina without any recorded “adverse effects on public safety” (Schrantz). If such drastic changes can be successful in a sample of states varying widely in location and culture, then a more widespread implementation of these tactics could potentially reduce the prison population of the nation’s other forty-five states.

If incarceration rates slowed, then finances could be redirected from constructing numerous large prisons on cheap and dangerous land to building a reduced amount of prisons in environmentally stable locations. This strategy of reducing incarceration avoids the drastic financial consequences of changing the locations of current facilities and diverting employment opportunities from low-income communities. As for toxic prisons that have already been constructed, increased pressure should be placed on governmental bodies to delegate financial resources towards Superfund clean-up. As demonstrated by the fact that the state of New Jersey, a leader “ in federally-designated Superfund sites, with 113 listed for pending clean-up,” despite the fact that “there are an additional 14,000 contaminated sites in the state,” there is a lack of urgency placed on giving environmentally distraught areas Superfund status (Tsolkas). Additionally, the sites that are given Superfund status, often produce prolonged cleanup efforts. This demonstrates the lack of urgency and adequate financial resources placed on reforming distraught environments that negatively affect the health of their inhabitants.

Given the vast complexity of this topic and the various questions it raises, this paper could not address every idea or facet of research that my study of Toxic Prisons raised. If given the opportunity to extend my research further, I would conduct interviews with former inmates at Toxic Prisons in order to gain a more in-depth understanding of the impact of these facilities on individuals’ lives. Additionally, I would investigate more specific examples of prisons built near hazardous materials to better understand the economic and political implications that resulted in their construction. Finally, I would enjoy having a discussion with a policy-maker about their position on Toxic Prisons and, if they share the sentiment communicated in this paper, how they plan on combating the issue.

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