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Break the Chain: Exploring the Links Between Environmental & Criminal Justice

February 13, 2024

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

Pollution. Lead poisoning. Community policing. Imprisonment. The challenges of environmental justice are even bigger than you may realize. Abt’s Dr. LaToria Whitehead and Dr. Jennifer Bronson discuss how systemic and structural racism have disproportionately thrust Black families into a brutal cycle linking dangerous environmental conditions, poor health, and involvement in the justice system.

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Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi, and welcome to the Intersect, I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Global tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening and maybe even fun to pair colleges from different disciplines so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges.

Today I'm joined by two of those colleagues, Dr. Jennifer Bronson and Dr. LaToria Whitehead. Jennifer's a medical sociologist who conducts complex quantitative, qualitative and evaluation studies designed to improve the health and safety of individuals in communities. She focuses on criminal justice and behavioral health research.

Tori is an accomplished thought leader and political scientist working at the intersection of public health, environmental justice, and environmental sustainability. She has nearly 20 years of experience working at the CDC, she recently served in the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Environmental Justice and, when she isn't working on environmental justice here at Abt, she's teaching at Spelman College. Thank you both for joining me.

LaToria Whitehead: Thank you, Eric.

Jennifer Bronson: Thank you.

Eric: The gross over-representation of Black men, women and youth in our justice system is well documented, and it's mirrored by similarly distorted incidents of environmental justice challenges for Black families. The breadth of these challenges—which lead to additional inequities in health, employment and more—can feel overwhelmingly diverse. But what if we start to address both of these seemingly disparate challenges through the lens of environmental justice? Let's connect the dots. Tori, what do we traditionally mean when we say environmental justice?

LaToria: Thank you, Eric. So environmental justice means that everyone, regardless of my race, my color, my national origin or income has the right to live in a healthy environment, have the same environmental protections and benefits of their environment. But it also means that I have meaningful involvement in shaping policies that impact my community. EJ is a manifestation of systemic racism, it's a layer of systemic racism where it manifests itself around social and economic issues. S

So, historical racist policies and laws have really created and sustained these disparate environmental conditions for the Black African American population. For example, redlining is a discriminatory practice that was created in the 1930s during the New Deal era, where maps were created and they were color coded to indicate where it was safe to ensure mortgages. So where your Black African American population, where they lived or lived nearby, redlines were drawn to say, "These areas are too risky to ensure these mortgages." Therefore, what happens here is that you have the Black population being housed in urban housing areas and very poor areas and polluted areas, and they are surrounded by disparate conditions.

This has created racial residential segregation, which is a systemic condition blighting the lives for many people in the African American population. Health disparities are a part of that. So when we live in dilapidated poor housing with mold, lead in the water, living near manufacturing facilities and power plants, living near toxic waste sites as well, we have health disparities that are born out of that, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, air pollution. There's an association between air pollution and pesticides and birth defects, and hospitalizations for heart attacks. Childhood lead poisoning is associated with learning disabilities, the lower IQ of children, behavioral problems, and poor nutrition. Asthma is associated with poor air quality, according to the Centers for Disease Control, CDC. These are all environmental injustices, and so the root causes of the majority of these environmental injustices are systemic racism, structural and systemic racism. Race, more so than class, is still today the number one indicator of where a toxic waste facility will be placed.

“Environmental racism” is a term that was coined by a civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis in the 1980s, and he defines environmental racism as racial discrimination in environmental policymaking and enforcement of regulation and laws where we target communities of color on where these hazards will be placed. So, environmental racism is a form of systemic racism, and many poor communities of color are looked at as not having the political power to really fight these issues, are really seen as ignorant and not caring about these issues.

So, the environmental justice movement was born out of communities of color really experiencing the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards. Because I am a person of color living in poverty or in a low-income neighborhood, or [just because] I am a person of color, I am fighting to live in a healthy environment with healthy environmental amenities because I am experiencing the disproportionate burden of these environmental hazards that I really should not be experiencing.

So, these principles of environmental justice were organized in 1991 at the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit that took place in Washington DC. So, this is the time now where we have gone beyond air pollution and bad water, now we are looking at environmental justice as a safe and nurturing and productive environment where I can interact with confidence, without experiencing discrimination, without experiencing racism.

Eric: So, we've got a radical history of chronic over-representation, both poor housing and poor health outcomes for Black families. Jennifer, can you catch us up on what the over-representation looks like in the justice system?

Jennifer: Yeah, hi. So, over-representation, we also see it in the criminal justice system, and what we mean here is that a group of people are disproportionately over-represented from what we would expect. So, for example, men are roughly 50 percent of the people in the general population, but they're about 93 percent of the prison population. So, for that reason, we say men are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Likewise, we see a similar pattern by race where Black people are over-represented.

If we look just at the prison system—so that's excluding arrests and jail data—we see that in 2022 data showed that about 32 percent of people in prison were Black, about 31 percent were white. But in the general population, only about 12 percent of the US population is Black and about 58 percent are white. So you would expect to see, if things were proportionate, you would expect to see similar percentages in the criminal justice system and in the general population.

What's important to note though, two things about over-representation, particularly by race, is that this pattern is present across the justice system. So we see Black adults and Black children over-represented among people who are shot by police for example, among those who are arrested, to be held in jail without having a conviction or a sentence, to have longer sentences. We see it along the cycle as a whole, but I think what is really critical to understand and what gets lost in these discussions about race and numbers and over-representation, that the problem itself is not because of race, or not because one group of people is inherently less criminal or more criminal than another. But the answer is racism, and that is a really critical difference to understand. It's racism that has shaped policies, procedures, systems, institutions for over 400 years. At the front end of this, this is what we see spilling over. So for example, neighborhoods that are disproportionately Black or Brown and/or of lower income, they generally have more police surveillance, which is going to increase your chance of police contact. That's how it starts and then from there you may or may not have the same resources to be able to challenge charges, get the right lawyer, be able to get bailed out, so all that good stuff starts to come into play.

Eric: Thank you. So these are all outcomes of systemic racism. Tori, how are these braided challenges rather than say parallel challenges.

LaToria: So, when we think about the environment, people usually think about our natural environment, such as trees, the wildlife, greenery and oceans. But the environment is where we live, it's where we work, where I play, where I go to school, where I worship, and of course this is also my social and my built environment. When we come out the door every day, what are you surrounded by? Am I surrounded by grocery stores where I can have fresh vegetables and fruits? Do I have open spaces? Do I have parks? I should feel safe and be able to really act with confidence in my environment to be my best self without experiencing racism or any type of discrimination.

So, as Jennifer described, the disproportionate police surveillance and the presence in predominantly Black neighborhoods and stores and schools, these are racist acts, but it's also a disruption of my environment. So with the repeated stop-and-frisk, the racist treatment, the violence, the unjust killings experienced by African American communities which are heavily policed, it makes the place where I work, I live and play, my environment mentally stressful and very unsafe. These acts are not equal throughout our society, as Jennifer talked about earlier. So where I live at, where I get up every day and go to bed every night, day in and day out I'm experiencing these things, of course this is mentally stressful and it's unsafe.

So that means that these communities, specifically Black communities, have a greater difficulty safely participating in their community, going outside to the park, enjoying the park, enjoying recreational activities, being able to exercise, all of this is a part of my environment. So it is environmental injustice, environmental racism when I'm experiencing these really racist acts of the police. Childhood lead poisoning has been linked to criminal activity and criminal violence, the more lead in a child's system, the more likely they are to be arrested as a young adult, according to the National Center of Health, and the majority of these young adults, as Jennifer pointed out earlier, are the African American population.

Eric: Who are disproportionately exposed to lead in their water, right?

LaToria: Exactly.

Jennifer: Racism, it's really paved the way for these disparate patterns of environmental justice and criminal justice to occur. But criminal justice is part of your built environment, policing patterns are part of your built environment, and that isn't always connected or acknowledged in a way that can facilitate solutions and responses and interventions across really understanding the scope of the problems and the impacts of racism.

When we look at health disparities alone, that's really the intermediate variable between them where environmental justice, or injustice, can lead to health disparities and poor health increases your risk of justice involvement. Justice involvement is a risk for poor health, environmental racism, such as environmental toxins, increases your risks for justice involvement and poor health. So you really get a circular pattern and a chicken and egg, but the point is that they're happening together, and not necessarily what causes that.

Eric: Gotcha. So, there's that circular pattern of justice involvement and poor health, but there's also just the pure facts of the poor health when you're involved with justice system. Tori, what are some of the justice challenges you're seeing when someone is incarcerated? Because your environment is even further degraded, presumably.

LaToria: Yes, yes. So to highlight a few cases, according to the Department of Justice, investigations that have been done specifically on these prisons and state legislative audits, for example you have the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The Mississippi State Penitentiary is known by its plantation name—because it used to be a plantation for enslaved Black population, by African Americans—so it's known by its slave name as Parchman Farm. It's 80 percent Black right now, the inmates that are there, where the freed population from Mississippi is only 37 percent Black. So some of the challenges that the prison, right now the prisoners are experiencing, its infrastructure is extremely dilapidated, the inmates have gone days without running water, the toilets are overflowing with raw sewage, the drainage, the drains, they don't function properly causing flooding, there's a lack of electricity, black mold.

All of these, of course, are environmental issues, and really are just inhumane conditions. When we look at Louisiana State Penitentiary—commonly referred to as Angola Prison—again, this prison was also a plantation for enslaved people as well. The prison is huge, and the property covers about 18,000 acres of land, and in this prison currently the incarcerated, they are forced to perform some of the same labor as if they were on a plantation. These prisoners are picking cotton, they are being patrolled by guards on horses armed with guns, and of course they are also experiencing extreme heat and inadequate medical care.

A lot of these prisons are built on hazardous waste sites, they're surrounded by coal ash dumps, raw sewage, mines, and landfills. We have Letcher County Kentucky Prison, it's a proposed prison, and the site that they're proposing to build the prison on is a coal mine site. So if they build this prison on the coal mine site, it has been known to of course leach arsenic and radon causing health risks to the incarcerated population, and the staff that work inside the prison as well.

So you have these various issues of experiencing in the prison environmental inequality, and you also have some of these issues where you have prisoners being treated as if they are on a plantation, as if slavery were still in existence today.

Jennifer: Those are great points. To expand or highlight a particular angle of what we're seeing within correctional facilities is the increase in temperatures. So we've got a group of people who statistically we know are significantly sicker than people who are not incarcerated, so that includes your asthma, your cardiovascular, infectious diseases, mental health, behavioral health, so all of those we know are over-represented. But what people don't necessarily realize is many prison and jail facilities are not air-conditioned, particularly back where the residents sleep and spend the bulk of their time.

So factor in overcrowding, increasing temperatures from climate change, and facilities that are inadequately cooled, they may only have A/C in some parts of the facility or not at all. So what's happening is you have people who are incarcerated for pretty benign things, unpaid parking tickets, drug possession charges, not everyone who's incarcerated is there because they did something awful and scary. In fact, that's very rarely the case. So, from a human rights perspective, we have people in prison and jail who have been sentenced to serve time, not to experience extreme heat above and beyond what the human body can take, and not to die from preventable heat stroke.

We saw in some of these facilities, particularly those in the South, it reached 120 degrees. As a result, research is showing more eventually pushing toward death, and more preventable deaths among people in facilities due to heat. I think some of the recent data I've seen showed that about 635 people in prison—so that doesn't include jails—have died of heat related causes in the last 20 years. Nine people in Texas died last summer alone. This is a concern. This is a concern and it's something that facilities will need to think about and society will need to think about as well.

Eric: You've just described what's happening when you're incarcerated. You come out and what are your circumstances when you come out? You return to your community, hopefully, and then where are you?

LaToria: As Jennifer described earlier, you have the Black population where we are being targeted by the criminal justice system, from daily living to arrest and incarceration, and really increasing the odds of experiencing environmental injustices. And African Americans are more likely to experience, of course, aggressive police, and, if incarcerated, are subjected to inhumane living conditions. So Eric, to your point, what happens when you come out of prison? Well, now you have many people that have come out of this system and their families are often forced to live in highly segregated urban areas that really can impair a person's physical health, making them less likely to engage in outdoor physical activity as well, and being surrounded really by what we call built environment disparities.

With this disparate built environment comes a lack of quality education, what sociologists call the spatial mismatch. I live on the east side, public transportation is on the west side, and all the jobs are also on the west side. There's urban sprawl that is linked to noise, overcrowding, indoor/outdoor air pollution, and accessible resources such again as jobs and transportation, fresh food, healthcare, the lack of parks again and open spaces, recreation, public spaces. The effects of climate change of course, such as heatwaves and community displacement for a lot of poor populations.

So what we're describing here are social conditions that really impact your health, which we call social determinants of health in the public health arena. But all of these pieces and these components are around my built environment. So what you have here is a cycle happening that really has started from systemic racism, and it's happening before, it's happening during, when the incarcerated are in prison, and then it's happening after. We're recreating this cycle of living in poverty, and also living and experiencing environmental inequalities.

Eric: Including that over-policing, because you're returnin to that community. Okay. Last question, what can we do to start breaking this cycle? There's so many perspectives, we're talking about housing, we're talking about employment, we're talking about health, and they're all interrelated obviously, as we're outlining here. But what, within this prism, the lens of environmental justice and criminal justice, what can we maybe do to start turning the tide here?

Jennifer: When I think about how we approach crime and crime prevention in the U.S., it's very reactionary. In part, that's because of the way that the problem has been framed. Since Tori and I have been having these conversations, I've wondered if we frame criminal justice, the over-representation of Black people in the criminal justice system, if we frame that as an environmental justice issue, which it is, because it is our built environment, does that then change how we start to look at solutions? How we start to look at intervention?

Ultimately, healthy communities grow healthy people and families, and healthy people and families grow healthy communities. The criminal justice system is part of that, how people become involved with it, what happens to them while they're there, and what happens when they return and where they return to. So I think breaking down the silos a little bit more, having these connections and looking at how we define problems so that we can find better solutions.

LaToria: I definitely agree with Jennifer on that point. Policing should be analyzed as an environmental racism issue. It is a part of environmental racism, and it is also a part of trying to accomplish what we call environmental justice. This is built on systemic racism. This is built on structural racism, it's another form of racism, it's environmental racism. So breaking down these pieces with more investigations done by the Department of Justice, with more investigations done around policing in Black communities, in African American communities, should be done as well.

But environmental racism has to be a part of these bigger conversations that we are having around structural racism. As we talked about earlier, many people when they think about the environment, you're not thinking about the humanity and human health that's connected to the environment. You are thinking the natural environment, you are thinking wilderness and preservation, but this is human rights. It's a part of our human rights, and policing should be analyzed, over-policing as the lack of human rights in connection to environmental racism as well. So it has to be talked about a lot more, and it has to be in that same dynamic of structural and systemic racism, because that is what it's built on.

Eric: Thank you. Well, obviously at Abt we look at these holistically, talk about social determinants of health, but it's great that the two of you are making this connection to help us see that bigger picture. So, thank you both for sharing that today.

Jennifer: Thank you for having us, Eric. It was a great conversation.

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