Several years ago, the Workers World newspaper publihed an article of mine entitled “Jailhouse Environmentalist.” It told the tale of a prisoner named Bryant Arroyo, a man who responded to the planned placement of a massive gas liquification plant right outside the gates of the state prison in Mahanoy in Northeast Pennsylvania with action.
First, Arroyo did his research. He went to the library and read the environmental impact statement. What he learned of the particulars and chemicals to be released by the plant concerned him even more. He went around the prison and talked to everybody, including the guards, explaining that they too would be exposed to the particulars, and if their families lived close enough, they also would be exposed.
Arroyo began the organizing phase, and before long, letters began trickling into the local governing council, protesting the plant. The trickle became a flood, and eventually over 900 letters arrived there. The plant plan was canceled. Arroyo, a bilingual Puerto Rican had won.
When I met him, I told him he was the first jailhouse environmentalist I had ever met. Arroyo then enrolled in correspondence courses with a group known as Environmental Defense Fund to deepen his understanding of environmental law.
For example, one thing Arroyo learned was that in Pennsylvania’s Constitution, Article One, Section 27, the following words are written: “The people have a right to clean air.”
Several years ago, the Abolitionist Law Center of Pittsburgh issued a damning report on a Pennsylvania state prison situated right atop a toxic waste dump.
The prison became a cancer hotspot affecting prisoners and staff alike. It remains there today. And finally, what are prisons except sinks of negativity? What are they except places of mass pollution of the spirit, the mind, the psyche? The environment of prisons is one of oppression. We cannot ignore this truth.
How can any good come from it? Perhaps that’s why such an institution is plagued by recidivism, returnees to prison who cannot cope with home. Any other institution with such a record of malperformance would be shuttered because of such failure. Unfortunately, such is not the case with prison which is still with us. Only a mass movement can transform this social reality.
From imprisoned nation, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.