Student Reflection: Environmental Justice and Prisons

October 22, 2015
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Guest Post by Darcy Bender, Student at The New School

Created by Darcy Bender.

Created by Darcy Bender.

In researching the history of incarceration in New York City, I was astonished to learn that Riker’s Island is largely comprised of a former municipal solid waste landfill. From the turn of the last century to the time the first correctional facilities were built in the 1930s, Riker’s Island was an ever-growing pile of waste. Perhaps it should not be surprising that this site was chosen for the city’s jail as both landfills and prisons are places for what society has deemed unwanted.

Significant health risks exist that are associated with living on or near landfills built before the EPA required landfill containment. Landfills are known to emit gases such as methane and carbon dioxide that can be dangerous to those with extensive exposure. However, the EPA does not include prison populations in its studies of potential environmental impacts of new prison construction.

The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance has identified that environmental burdens are unequally distributed amongst the city’s populations with people of color and low income residents being disproportionately impacted. This is particularly true in the management of solid waste with over 75% of the city’s waste passing through a handful of EJ communities. Similarly, New York City’s prison population is predominantly people of color and those living in low-income households. It is possible that even when prisoners leave the prison they could return to neighborhoods with environmental health burdens.

The image I have included is a map I made of all of the waste facilities (in green) and correctional institutions (in orange) in New York City. While many facilities are sparsely distributed along the outer fringes of the city, there are a few concentrations of waste and correctional infrastructure. One is Rikers Island and its proximity to Hunt’s Point – an area with many waste transfer stations and heavy truck traffic due to the Hunt’s Point Food Distribution Center. Another is the Neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn that has a significant concentration of both types of facilities and is a predominantly hispanic community with over a quarter of the population living in poverty. It is important for us to visualize these patterns of development that cause undue burden on certain populations and understand the potential health impacts of waste facilities on the prison population.



“Important things to know about landfill gas.” New York State Department of Health.
“Environmental Justice for Prisons.” Pacific Standard Magazine.
“Solid Waste and Transfer Stations.”New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.


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