By Liyu Woldemichael 

Image from the Prison Ecology Project, who coined the term prison ecology and has led many efforts across the country for environmental justice. 

Confronting mass incarceration is an urgent environmental justice issue, which has become more dire as the consequences of the climate crisis become more immediate. The term prison ecology was first coined in 2014 by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) to describe the various ways mass incarceration exacerbates environmental harm, including but not limited to:

  • damage of sewage and industrial waste due to overpopulated and under-regulated prisons
  • threats to listed species by the ongoing construction and operation of prisons in remote, environmentally sensitive rural areas 
  • environmental justice concerns regarding prisoners, staff and surrounding communities. (Bernd 2017).

The purpose of my project is firstmost to examine how incarcerated people experience environmental harm and how they navigate systems to find justice. As a student in the public policy department, I had the opportunity to conduct my literature review and submit a project proposal, which helped me explore the existing conversations around prison ecology. Through this, I learned that each state places their incarcerated populations in toxic environments due to the sites of prison locations and the management of these systems. Despite varying degrees of environmental laws in each state, with places like California having the strictest laws in the country, incarcerated people are falling through the cracks of these laws. 

I have decided to continue my project with a comparative study of Alabama and California, two states with very different landscapes around the environment and criminal justice. I chose Alabama, as that is my home state and holds a personal connection to where I first began thinking about environmental justice. California, on the other hand, is the most widely researched state in terms of prison ecology, giving me a lot of data and information to dissect. Through this, I hope to understand the differences in prison ecology by state and also why the issue remains pervasive in states with better environmental laws. 

Understanding how incarcerated people are neglected by environmental legislations and leaders is key to my project. To do this, I have been preparing interviews with previously incarcerated people and additionally with leaders in the environmental field to understand how those incarcerated are seen within the environmental movement, particularly to see if prisons are on their agenda. By interviewing those incarcerated, I hope to understand reporting systems and see how incarcerated persons are mobilizing around environmental issues. 

Beginning this process, I have worked with my advisor, Megan Mullin, to submit my protocols for IRB approval. This process has forced me to think critically about how to ethically engage with vulnerable populations and design questions that are meaningful. I have been thinking more carefully about how to protect the confidential information that will be shared with me and how to translate my findings into my final project. With many re-iterations of my IRB proposal, my most recent one was finally approved. It is so critical that researchers take this step in their project seriously. It is my goal for my project to help add more color to the existing literature and help advance conversations on prison justice. However, I am motivated to ensure that this is not exploitative of the communities I will be in conversation with.