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EPA Adds Prison Locations to Its Environmental Justice Mapping Tool
By Zoe Loftus-Farren
As an environmental reporter, it's not every day that I get to communicate good news—the state of our environment often feels pretty bleak. But today, at least, there is a victory to celebrate: Thanks to the persistence of a small group of prison ecology advocates, the support of their allies, and the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prisoners rights and environmental justice advocates have a new tool to add to their activist arsenal.
This summer, the EPA added a "prisons layer" to its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. Known as EJSCREEN for short, the tool can be used by the public to assess possible exposure to pollutants that might be present in the environment (i.e., land, air and water) where they live or work.
The new layer allows the public to overlay the locations of the country's 6,000-plus prisons, jails and detention centers with information about environmental hazards like superfund and hazardous waste sites, something the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center has been pushing for as part of its campaign for the EPA to consider prisoners within an environmental justice context. For the prison ecology movement, which addresses issues at the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental degradation, it could be a game changer.
"It's huge," said Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center. "It's one of those things that I think if you just look at it quickly, it seems almost mundane to have added a layer to this existing map. And in the absence of a movement present to actually use it for something, it could be meaningless…. But in the presence of what we've been doing over the last three years, of building this national movement and organizing model of looking at prisons from an environmental justice perspective … this is pretty massive."
The Prison Ecology Project was thinking of creating it's own map in the absence of an EPA version. And during our own reporting on toxic prisons earlier this year, Earth Island Journal and Truthout attempted to create a map of prisons and superfund sites across the country, but were stymied by a lack of adequate mapping tools.
Tsolkas thinks the tool will prove valuable in the fight against new prison projects. Prisons are often built on marginal lands that, after having been mined, logged or otherwise contaminated, may not be seen as suitable for any other use. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a subdivision division of the U.S. Department of Justice, doesn't typically address the impact of prison-siting decisions on the health of prisoners when completing federally mandated environmental impact statements (EIS).
That was originally the case with the proposed construction of a maximum-security prison atop a former mountaintop-removal coal-mining site in Letcher County, Kentucky. The BOP's initial environmental impact statement for the project didn't mention the potential environmental impacts—like mining-related pollution and water contamination—on the estimated 1,200 people who would be held at the prison if it were built. A revised EIS released earlier this year (following extensive comments by groups like the HRDC and the Center for Biological Diversity), mentions some of the health implications for prisoners, but does not provide a robust discussion of the impacts. According to HRDC, this EIS may represent the only example of an environmental review in which the BOP has made any mention of prisoner health. The final EIS for the new prison is still pending. (Read more about the status of the Letcher County proposal).
Tsolkas said that the new EJSCREEN prison layer implicitly endorses HRDC's contention that the BOP must consider prisoner health when evaluating the Letcher County project, and others like it.
"What the BOP has been saying is that they basically have no reason, no mandate, nothing that points them to have to look at environmental justice concerns related to prisons," Tsolkas said. "And having the EPA include prisons on the EJSCREEN basically implies the opposite, that federal agencies now need to look at prison populations when they're considering the placement of industrial facilities including prisons themselves."
The new prison layer may also give prison ecology advocates the edge they need to go on the offensive. "Instead of reacting to abuses in existing prisons or responding to proposals for new prisons, we can actually initiate campaigns, and say, 'Hey, this overpopulated prison has documented issues with x, y, and x.," Tsolkas explained. "So we can create campaigns basically using the EJSCREEN tool."
Tsolkas said he'd like "to give a shout-out to the folks at the environmental justice office of the EPA" for making the prison layer a reality. But he'd still like to see more from the agency, especially in the form of a robust national prison-inspection program.
Such a program is not without precedent. The EPA's Region III office—which covers the Mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, DC—used to run a "prisons initiative" to improve environmental compliance at prisons and jails across the region. Under the imitative, which ended in 2011, the EPA conducted inspections at prisons, and engaged in outreach and training work.
In a written statement, the agency said it ended the prisons initiative because it "felt prisons in the Mid-Atlantic region were able to ensure environmental regulation compliance by themselves." It seems, however, that there is still room for improvement: A recent investigation by Earth Island Journal and Truthout found that mass incarceration impacts the health of prisoners, prison-adjacent communities, and local ecosystems across the U.S.
"It shouldn't be like pulling teeth," Tsolkas said, referring to the difficultly of getting EPA inspectors out to prisons. "We have hundreds of letters from prisoners across the country saying the water is dirty. It shouldn't take that much to get an EPA representative to go…. They have a key to get into the prisons that most of us don't have short of visitation and breaking laws."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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Cabin fever is often associated with being cooped up on a rainy weekend or stuck inside during a winter blizzard.
In reality, though, it can actually occur anytime you feel isolated or disconnected from the outside world.
What is cabin fever?<p>In popular expressions, cabin fever is used to explain feeling bored or listless because you've been stuck inside for a few hours or days. But that's not the reality of the symptoms.</p><p>Instead, cabin fever is a series of negative emotions and distressing sensations people may face if they're isolated or feeling cut off from the world.</p><p>These feelings of isolation and loneliness are more likely in times of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/yes-covid-19-cases-are-rising-why-you-still-need-to-practice-social-distancing" target="_blank">social distancing</a>, self-quarantining during a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-a-pandemic" target="_blank">pandemic</a>, or sheltering in place because of severe weather.</p><p>Indeed, cabin fever can lead to a series of symptoms that can be difficult to manage without proper coping techniques.</p><p>Cabin fever isn't a recognized psychological disorder, but that doesn't mean the feelings aren't real. The distress is very real. It can make fulfilling the requirements of everyday life difficult.</p>
What are the symptoms?<p>Symptoms of cabin fever go far beyond feeling bored or "stuck" at home. They're rooted in an intense feeling of isolation and may include:</p><ul><li>restlessness</li><li>decreased motivation</li><li><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/irritability" target="_blank">irritability</a></li><li>hopelessness</li><li><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/unable-to-concentrate" target="_blank">difficulty concentrating</a></li><li><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/irregular-sleep-wake-syndrome" target="_blank">irregular sleep patterns</a>, including sleepiness or sleeplessness</li><li>difficulty waking up</li><li><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/lethargy" target="_blank">lethargy</a></li><li>distrust of people around you</li><li>lack of patience</li><li>persistent <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/depression-vs-sadness" target="_blank">sadness or depression<br></a></li></ul>
What can help you cope with cabin fever?<p>Because cabin fever isn't a recognized psychological condition, there's no standard "treatment." However, mental health professionals do recognize that the symptoms are very real.</p><p>The coping mechanism that works best for you will have a lot to do with your personal situation and the reason you're secluded in the first place.</p><p>Finding meaningful ways to engage your brain and occupy your time can help alleviate the distress and irritability that cabin fever brings.</p><p>The following ideas are a good place to start.</p>
When to get help<p>Cabin fever is often a fleeting feeling. You may feel irritable or frustrated for a few hours, but having a virtual chat with a friend or finding a task to distract your mind may help erase the frustrations you felt earlier.</p><p>Sometimes, however, the feelings may grow stronger, and no coping mechanisms may be able to successfully help you eliminate your feelings of isolation, sadness, or depression.</p><p>What's more, if your time indoors is prolonged by outside forces, like weather or extended shelter-in-place orders from your local government, feelings of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety" target="_blank">anxiety</a> and fear are valid.</p><p>In fact, anxiety may be at the root of some cabin fever symptoms. This may make symptoms worse.</p><p>If you feel that your symptoms are getting worse, consider reaching out to a mental health professional who can help you understand what you're experiencing. Together, you can identify ways to overcome the feelings and anxiety.</p><p>Of course, if you're in isolation or practicing social distancing, you'll need to look for alternative means for seeing a mental health expert.</p><p>Telehealth options may be available to connect you with your therapist if you already have one. If you don't, reach out to your doctor for recommendations about mental health specialists who can connect with you online.</p><p>If you don't want to talk to a therapist, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/top-iphone-android-apps" target="_blank">smartphone apps for depression</a> may provide a complementary option for addressing your cabin fever symptoms.</p>
The bottom line<p>Isolation isn't a natural state for many people. We are, for the most part, social animals. We enjoy each other's company. That's what can make staying at home for extended periods of time difficult.</p><p>However, whether you're sheltering at home to avoid dangerous weather conditions or heeding the guidelines to help minimize the spread of a disease, staying at home is often an important thing we must do for ourselves and our communities.</p><p>If and when it's necessary, finding ways to engage your brain and occupy your time may help bat back cabin fever and the feelings of isolation and restlessness that often accompany it.</p>
Pope Francis spoke about the novel coronavirus, suggesting that the global pandemic might be one of nature's responses to the man-made climate crisis.