Nexus: The Environmental Cost of Mass Incarceration

By Mpingo Uhuru

Tucked away in the small, rural community of Ione, California, an environmental tragedy has been playing out for over twenty-five years with minimal attention being brought to it. I am referring to the pollution and contamination of drinking water with unprecedented levels of caffeine from the coffee roasting plant at the prison industrial complex known as Mule Creek State Prison.

Mule Creek State Prison, Photo source Google Maps

As one of the nearly 4,000 individuals confined and housed here, I feel the traumatic blows of this neglect and disregard every single day. These effects impact us on a variety of levels including emotionally, mentally, and physically. I am living the pains of this horrendous neglect.

There is such a callous dismissal of the civil and human rights of those of us here, not to mention the human decency and kindness that should be afforded to us. The vast majority of individuals suffer from devastating and lasting effects such as increased agitation, headaches and migraines, intense insomnia, increased aggressive behaviors, elevated heart rates and hypertension. And this says nothing about the vile and bitter taste that saturates the water.

I liken drinking it to a scene from a National Geographic documentary where all of the animals dwell in a drought stricken land with a single source of drinking water. Each one instinctively knows of the lurking dangers of the crocodiles lying in wait just below the surface for the opportunity to snatch you under and devour you. Yet, in spite of the impending dangers, the need to drink in order to survive compels you to take the risk. It is more than just a mere willingness to slake one’s thirst.

See, the truth of the matter is that those of us housed here have no other options. There are no purifying systems attached to the water source. Nor is there the option of us choosing the cool refreshness of bottled water, which is exactly what the administration recommends that the officers and other staff members drink.

When one factors in the medical and mental health costs of treating the symptoms of having to drink this contaminated water, the costs are incalculable. In fact, more money is spent annually on treating these symptoms in the inmates than it would cost to purify, regulate and clean up the toxic waste of caffeine that seeps from the outdated coffee roasting complex.

In addition, how can we truly factor in the effects of this environmental neglect on the surrounding wildlife and even the residents of Ione? That the prison has done nothing to rectify this situation is another shining example of how profits are placed over lives and environmental well-being.

The callous disregard shown towards those housed here and our health makes it difficult not to become both bitter and cynical. When we seriously think of all the daily uses of water aside from drinking it, such as having to brush our teeth, wash our clothes, clean our living areas, and even more essential during this pandemic, constantly washing our face and hands, we are exposed to unhealthy levels of caffeine in every aspect.

The truth of the matter is that those of us who are confined here have little recourse. Our voices are drowned out and our plight is set. Unless those who are in the public stand up, take up our call and cry out in indignation, nothing will ever change. Nothing will ever get done until the voices of the people are heard by those who are in power. When profits become less important than people, change will be demanded and progress will be made.

Mpingo Waridi Uhuru is incarcerated in Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP), which was designed to hold 1,700 inmates but now houses over 4,000. 


Caroline Griffith

The U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other nation in the world, and many of those prisoners are housed in facilities designed to hold far fewer people than they do now. One major side effect of this massive overcrowding is the inability of on-site wastewater treatment plants to handle the increased workload, leading to frequent instances of sewage overflows at prisons. In addition to the caffeine contamination at Mule Creek, tests have shown that water and soil around the prison are contaminated with coliforms, nitrates and cleaning solvents that may have come from a dry cleaning plant that was on-site at one time. Inmates and contractors who have worked at MCSP have complained for years of health problems caused by contaminated water.

Another source of environmental degradation is the “inmate training programs”, i.e., factories, that are housed in many prisons. In fact, prison industries are so prevalent that most prisons are basically factories that also house people. The coffee roasting plant that Mpingo mentioned is run by CalPIA (California Prison Industry Authority) which makes and sells products ranging from food to furniture to industrial cleaners. Inmates in government-run and private prisons are paid between 23 cents to $1.15 per hour to do everything from sewing garments to running call centers. Some federal prisons run electronic waste recycling facilities and inmates have complained of exposure to toxic chemicals. A Department of Justice investigation found that “oversight of UNICOR’s (also known as Federal Prison Industries) compliance with environmental regulations was inadequate, and that the e-waste recycling program was responsible for generating hazardous wastes that were unlawfully stored or disposed of at multiple Bureau of Prisons institutions.”

Many prisons are located in rural areas, out of public view, and the public is happy to pretend that they don’t exist. Our willingness to ignore the problem, and those most affected by it, allows it to persist. Until those of us who have the freedom to speak out start to do so, we will all continue to be harmed by this exploitative system.