A hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center is throwing concerns over contaminated water into the spotlight.
Photo: Seattle Globalist (Flickr)

On August 21, people incarcerated in states across the U.S. stopped working, went on hunger strikes, and started boycotting prison stores as part of a nationwide strike that, organizers say, has now spread to at least 14 states. The prison strike, which is set to officially end on September 9, is an effort to highlight ten demands drafted by incarcerated people, including an appeal for immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons.

It’s a demand that encompasses the environment. “That is definitely one of the concerns of strikers,” Amani Sawari, a media representative for the protests, told Earther. “[P]risons are often located next to places that are waste sites or dump sites. They’re not in pleasant areas where the air is the cleanest or the water is the greatest.”

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Nationwide, prisons have faced questions about polluted water, health complications, and other environmental problems. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump set aside $510 million to build a new federal prison on top of an abandoned coal mine in Kentucky. It’s the most ever spent to construct a federal prison in U.S. history.

And facilities currently on strike? Immigrant rights advocates point to possible pollution at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, which houses Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees and is operated by the private company GEO Group. The facility was built next to a former coal waste dump known as the Tacoma Tar Pits, even after an environmental impact assessment found “hazardous waste contamination that exceed established regulatory levels for soil and groundwater.”

Now, people detained at NWDC complain about odd odors and colors of the center’s water, and report nausea, dizziness, breathing problems, and rashes that might stem from water pollution there, according to Megan Ybarra, a geography professor at the University of Washington and an activist with NWDC Resistance, an immigrant rights group that supports people detained in Tacoma.

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“As is often the case with environmental health concerns, these cannot be directly attributed to site conditions,” said Ybarra. “Our primary concern is that no attempt is made to either treat or investigate the cause of these environmental health concerns.”

In August, dozens of detainees at the NWDC started a hunger strike, calling for “change and closure” of immigrant detention centers and an end to separation of immigrant families. Seven detainees have continued to refuse food into the third week according to Ybarra, who says that ICE and GEO Group are cracking down on hunger strikers by threatening to force feed them and send them to solitary confinement.

In an email to Earther, ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell said that three detainees are currently refusing food, but that “rumors of a widespread hunger strike are false,” adding that “ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.” However, a document she provided outlining the agency’s standards on hunger strikes says that physicians may “may recommend involuntary treatment,” including force feeding, if necessary.

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At the McConnell Unit, a state prison in Beeville, Texas, several imprisoned people refused to show up for work, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, one of the groups coordinating strike efforts. That prison previously made headlines when a 36-year-old man incarcerated there died in a heat-related asthma attack.

“I would say pretty confidently that a majority, if not a vast majority, of southern state prisons have some level of extreme heat,” Panagioti Tsolkas, co-founder of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, told Earther. In Texas, nearly 75 percent of the state’s prisons and jails lack air conditioning in the prisoners’ living areas.

Global temperatures have spiked at the same time as the U.S. prison population has exploded, and climate change is expected to worsen the prison heat situation over the next few decades. Data released Thursday by the National Centers for Environmental Information found that 2018 summer nights were the hottest on record for the U.S.

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In Florida, another state where most correctional facilities do not have air conditioning, strike organizers claim that people at five prisons have stopped work or boycotted prison stores. Two of those prisons, Dade Correctional Institution and Holmes Correctional Institution, are located in areas at increased risk of flooding.

Prison officials in most states have denied that strikes are taking place at all. It’s hard for reporters to independently verify reports of strikes from inside prisons, because officials don’t let journalists freely enter facilities or talk to incarcerated people.

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That’s one reason it’s not clear which specific concerns have prompted protests at each location. While environmental concerns are longstanding at many U.S. prisons, the call for immediate improvements to conditions is just one of the national strike’s ten demands.

Still, supporters see the strike as an important step in elevating the issues facing incarcerated people. “It’s about amplifying what these demands are,” Randolph Carr, an organizer with the National Black Food and Justice Alliance told Earther, “because there is no consciousness around prisoners outside of those directly affected.” The most immediate effect of the strike, he said, has been to raise more awareness.

“I think that’s a prerequisite for any kind of substantive change to happen.”

What kind of change? “We’ll fight to clean prisons up and get prisoners better water in the short term, but in the longer term it’s really part of a broader shift,” Tsolkas said. “The idea that prisoners belong in warehouses, in these massive industrial facilities — that’s got to change entirely… That’s all part of the environmental struggle.”

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Andrew Urevig is a journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

This article has been updated to include comments from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.