Toxic Confinement: Can the Eighth Amendment Protect Prisoners from Human-Made Environmental Health Hazards?

Helppie-Schmieder, Brenna | April 25, 2016

What would you do if you realized a nearby factory or energy operation was making everyone in your town sick? You might try to rally your neighbors in protest, take legal action, or cut your losses and move away. But what if your options were more limited? What if you were forced to stay? This is the situation for prisoners across the country who live in prisons located near dangerous energy industry operations.

The increased reliance on incarceration in recent times has resulted in prisons being built on undesirable land, often the same land occupied by the energy industry. This proximity presents serious health risks for prisoners who are exposed to harmful operations, yet are unable to move.

Eighth Amendment precedent already establishes that health risks can provide the basis for unconstitutional conditions claims, but it is not as clear whether human-made environmental health risks can provide a similar basis. Given the legal standard for Eighth Amendment claims, and precedent interpreting that standard, this Note argues that human-made environmental hazards near the physical location of a prison could form the basis for successful claims of unconstitutional conditions.