“It felt all too real,” Siwatu-Salama Ra said from her home in Detroit, Michigan. Her lifelong struggles against two injustices plaguing her community — pollution and incarceration — had become fused in a surreal way.
Three years ago, Ra, a world-renowned environmental justice organizer, lay shackled to a hospital bed. Since her childhood, she had followed in the footsteps of her mother, Rhonda Anderson, fighting for environmental justice in her neighborhood — a commitment that led to her representing her city during the 2015 United Nations climate talks in France. But in 2018, Ra, pregnant with her second child, was sentenced to prison for waving an unloaded gun at someone during a dispute.
It was there, facing the prospect of giving birth in a women’s correctional facility outside Detroit, that she learned a new jail was being built to incarcerate her son’s generation, too. This time it would sit in the shadow of the largest trash incinerator in Michigan, and one of the largest in the country.
For three decades, Detroit Renewable Power had burned 3,000 tons of trash every day, emitting dangerous levels of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead into the atmosphere, contaminating surrounding neighborhoods. Ra had spent years fighting to close the toxic site. Between 2013 and 2018, the incinerator racked up more than 750 citations for exceeding pollution emissions standards from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or MDEQ. And, according to a local environmental law center, the incinerator violated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act over a hundred times, as well. Data from the EPA and MDEQ shows that the facility is located in one of Wayne County’s worst neighborhoods for air pollution — a community that is also 76 percent people of color and 71 percent low-income.
After being released, Ra and her colleagues succeeded in getting the incinerator shut down in 2019. The closure doesn’t completely eliminate the environmental threat, however: Studies have shown that contaminants emitted during waste incineration have the ability to infiltrate surrounding soil and groundwater, with impacts that persist for years even after a site is closed. Now, Detroit officials say a new jail complex is needed to address safety concerns in the city’s aging jails, as well as save on maintenance costs. But the city’s plan to construct the Wayne County Criminal Justice Center across the street from the old Detroit Renewable Power incinerator will force up to 2,400 incarcerated people to live in close proximity to the facility’s toxic legacy.
While trash is no longer being burned on-site, Detroit Renewable Power is still operating as a solid waste transfer station, taking in 1,000 tons of waste per day. Transfer waste stations are known to emit odors, cause noise, attract rodents, and cause air emissions both from unloading dry and dusty waste and increased traffic in the immediate neighborhood.
Down the street from the new jail site, just beyond the recently shuttered incinerator, is a hazardous waste treatment plant known to fill the air with a “rotting fish” smell, which over the past six years has itself received more than 20 pollution violations from the MDEQ, now called the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The waste treatment plant’s violations are primarily for pungent odors released into the neighborhood, but also for dust and soot emissions beyond state limits. Local residents say the emissions often make simply being outside unbearable. The jail site is also right next to I-75, a major highway, adding another source of noise and air pollution that inmates will be exposed to.
“Living in Detroit has given me a deep understanding that fights against the prison system and police are also fights against poverty and pollution,” Ra told Grist.
The close ties between incarceration and pollution seen in Detroit are replicated across the United States. A recent Grist analysis found that the nation’s three largest jail systems — Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago — have facilities disproportionately located in areas where there are elevated risks for pollution-related cancer, respiratory hazards, diesel pollution exposure, and proximity to toxic wastewater and hazardous waste. According to the EPA, those incarcerated within the new Wayne County Criminal Justice Center will be exposed to more diesel pollution and situated closer to hazardous waste than 90 percent of the country.
“Detroit doesn’t deserve to have a new jail built,” Ra said. “But this is what the prison industrial complex does: A new jail right in front of our faces, right across from the busiest highway in the city, next to what was one of the largest incinerators in the world, and of course down the street from an elementary school.”
The jail’s location on Detroit’s east side within a heavily polluted area wasn’t in the original plans. The project, which first got underway in 2011, was initially slated to be built in downtown Detroit, close to public transit. But after the city ran over-budget on the jail, construction paused. Officials made a deal with Dan Gilbert, co-founder of Quicken Loans, a company accused of fraudulent lending, and founder of Bedrock, a real estate business (both of which fall under Gilbert’s parent company, Rock Venture, which includes over 100 other affiliated businesses). The deal was that Gilbert would receive the original downtown jail site in return for providing funding to continue the project at a new location on Detroit’s east side, and that Bedrock would manage the construction of the facility.
This arrangement underscores the way that environmental and criminal justice have become entangled in the new Wayne County Criminal Justice Center: It’s being funded in part by a private investor, Gilbert, who has been charged with gentrifying Detroit — the Blackest large city in America — and displacing residents in the process, as apartment buildings across the city were forcibly vacated for redevelopment. “Never before has a private entity held so much influence in a major American city as Rock Ventures holds in Detroit,” Business Insider declared in 2018, “and no one in the private sector is as powerful as Gilbert.”
According to city officials, the jail will save taxpayers money in the long run and is needed to improve safety for those incarcerated. The new complex will replace three existing prison facilities that are spread across the city, a setup that requires inmates be transported from the jail to the courtroom for every legal appearance. The new centralized Wayne County jail will have a court on-site so that those awaiting trial will walk to court, rather than being driven. From the consolidation of the buildings and the resulting decrease in building maintenance and staffing costs, the new jail is expected to save taxpayers $10 million to $20 million annually.
Additionally, the aging buildings have been plagued by safety concerns stemming from issues like malfunctioning heating and air conditioning, as well as deteriorating ceilings and plumbing leaks. In the city’s view, it’s a humane and cost-effective investment. (One estimate, however, indicates that it would cost the county a total of just $18 million to $22 million to do major repairs on the existing jails, compared to almost $600 million to build the new complex.)
Environmental justice organizers argue the money could be better spent elsewhere. “Instead of putting forward hundreds of millions of dollars into prisons, we should be putting hundreds of millions of dollars into schools,” said Michelle Martinez, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. Detroit’s public schools are…