The EPA’s 2020 Environmental Justice Action Agenda: A Call to Protect Our Nation’s Youth from Hazardous Conditions While Incarcerated
By Nicholas Bookout, CFYJ Fellow
On July 14, 2015, The Human Rights Defense Center sent a letter to the EPA – endorsed by CFYJ – urging the agency to include the United States’ prisoner population in its 2020 Environmental Justice Action Agenda. Much to the excitement of criminal justice and environmental advocates, the following day an EPA staff person responded by saying that the Environmental Office will acknowledge this gap in EPA policy and include the prisoner population in its 2020 agenda.
Per Executive Order 12898, government agencies are to, “Focus federal attention on the environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities.” As such, the EPA is currently drafting its Environmental Justice 2020 Action Agenda, which seeks to, “Make a visible difference in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities.”
With prison population being disproportionately both low-income and individuals of color, there is no question that the prisoner population comes from overburdened and economically distressed backgrounds. Furthermore, the 2.3 million yearly incarcerated Americans, 100,000 youth amongst them, are exceedingly exposed to harmful environmental conditions. The HDRC provides numerous examples of this environmental overburdening; these circumstances include prisoners facing close proximity to toxic waste, prolonged exposure to contaminated drinking water, and sickness resulting from exposure to coal ash. Thus, the prisoner population, by and large, faces harmful conditions of industrial pollution both prior to and during incarceration.
However, as the HRDC letter articulates, the EPA does not currently take the prisoner population into account as it formulates this action agenda. Therefore, millions of Americans, and thousands of children, are continually exposed to hazardous environmental conditions. Luckily, with the EPA’s acknowledgement of this gap in policy, there will soon be an effort to remedy these injustices.
Unfortunately, the United States still locks up thousands of children in the adult criminal justice system. In an effort to recognize another negative consequence of this practice, and to positively influence the conditions of confinement for adults and youth alike, the Campaign for Youth Justice wholly endorsed the HRDC’s letter. CFYJ is excited that the EPA will include the prisoner population in its 2020 Environmental Justice Action Agenda, taking a small yet important step towards justice for our nation’s youth. As such, we also hope that the United States government and American People, as supposed global leaders in the realm of Human Rights, will take note of yet another injustice in our nation’s criminal justice system, and work towards reform that will increasingly remove our nation’s youth from these harmful circumstances of imprisonment.