Protecting the Planet Protects Women
Climate change doesn’t just cause rising sea levels, extreme weather, and endangered species. This Earth Day, we’re raising awareness about the way climate change creates environmental injustices for many vulnerable populations, including justice-involved women. Oftentimes we talk about climate change as an issue on its own. But it is interconnected with the many challenges our world faces, including the challenge we tackle in our agency’s work—the growing rates of incarceration and its impact on women. Fueled by racism and white supremacy unreckoned within this country, environmental injustices only exacerbate the devastation of putting people behind bars. We have a lot to solve and a lot to do, but let’s start by acknowledging a simple truth: Protecting the planet protects women.
Environmental justice describes a movement to recognize how environmental hazards primarily impact low-income communities and Latino, Black, Asian, and Indigenous communities. The environmental harm these communities experience are augmented by the detrimental impacts of the criminal justice system. Renowned geographer and carceral studies scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore shares a story in the epilogue of her 2007 book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California told by Juana Gutierrez, the founder of a group called Mothers of East Los Angeles. Gutierrez pointed out that many individuals who end up in prisons have a past of missing or not finishing school. She said many kids missed school because they were sick from asthma caused by harsh pollution that is characteristic of the Greater Los Angeles area. The story calls on us to ask questions about what truly are the root causes of crime. We must move towards a realization that various factors in a person’s living environment change their life in ways that are rarely, if ever, considered in the criminal justice system.
How do environmental injustices show up in Missouri? In Saint Louis County alone, there are five of what the Environmental Protection Agency terms “Superfund sites”, or environmentally hazardous and toxic sites that are dangerous for the public and require extensive cleanup measures. As we stall action on addressing climate change and the environmental disasters it brings, more and more children and families in the U.S. will be dealing with its irreversible damages. While it is difficult to trace the environmental lineage of every person that is incarcerated in the U.S. to determine how it could have impacted their life, we are still able to see how environmental injustices are impacting them right at this very moment.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, across the United States there are almost 600 prisons and jails within 3 miles of a Superfund site. Investigative reports have revealed that many of those who are imprisoned at these facilities have suffered severe health issues. A facility in Pennsylvania had eighty percent of individuals incarcerated there exposed to coal ash from a nearby site. Now, advocacy campaigns are popping up to stop these so-called “toxic prisons” and to raise awareness of the deeply tangled issues of environmental injustice and injustice in the criminal legal system.
The serious environmental concerns of the U.S. prisons do not stop there. A recent study by a legal scholar at Columbia University documented the horrid heat conditions in prisons happening as a result of climate change. After the study was published, PBS did an investigative piece on conditions inside several prisons impacted by Hurricane Harvey and the extreme heat of the summer of 2018. The stories coming from those incarcerated are harrowing and very difficult to read, but they importantly show the world the inhumane treatment happening right beneath our eyes. After years of activists pushing for its closure, the Workhouse in St. Louis, a facility also cited for its inhumane conditions and sweltering heat in which many of our clients have endured, will finally be shut down for good this year.
Almost every single woman we have served at the Center for Women in Transition lives below 20% the annual median income. Environmental injustices are occurring in some of the poorest communities in our country. From birth to behind bars, climate change has unjustly altered the lives of millions of formerly and currently incarcerated individuals. Protecting the planet is one step towards breaking the carceral cycle. Protecting the planet protects justice-involved women on their path to recovery and success.