Increased environmental degradation goes hand in hand with the dramatic increase in the number of prisons in the United States over the last 30 years. Documentation of the environmental impact of prisons exists in reports scattered across state and federal agencies nationwide. A coherent assessment of the scope of the problem has yet to be compiled, though The Prison Ecology Project has taken great strides in this direction. One of their immediate goals is to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency to include prisoners in their Environmental Justice 2020 agenda.

Often located in rural and underserved communities, prisons lack the stringent oversight that more prosperous areas take for granted. Inadequate sewage treatment in Alabama prison facilities resulted in the dumping of almost twice the amount of allowable raw sewage into state streams and rivers. Alabama is not alone in these state and federal clean water violations. According to Prison Legal News, prisons in no fewer than 17 states have egregiously violated clean water standards. From New York to California, no corner of the United States can claim true compliance to clean water regulations in their prisons. The problem is most likely larger than reported.

Another issue that arises in the prison industry is locating prison sites on environmentally compromised land. Rikers Island in New York, for example, is built upon a former rat-infested landfill that was so toxic it regularly burst into flames. The state of Kentucky currently has plans to build a prison on top of an abandoned coal mine. The pattern is not new. Some industries depletes and toxifies a site to such a horrendous degree that the only use that would not cause a public outcry is the construction of a prison.

The proposed prison in Kentucky is particularly problematic. Not only is the immediate site compromised by the coal mining operation, but construction would also demolish 700 acres of habitat. Two endangered species of bat, the Indiana and Gray, call this part of Appalachia home. The Federal Bureau of Prison’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the site does recognize the possibility of negative consequences for the two species of bat. However, the report downplays the significance of these findings and has not curtailed plans for the prison.