What’s a ‘jailhouse environmentalist’?
Taken from a Feb. 17, 2013, audio column on prisonradio.org
Most of us have heard of jailhouse lawyers — guys and gals who battle in court for themselves or others.
But I’d wager few of us have ever heard of a “jailhouse environmentalist.” Truth is, I didn’t think such a thing existed.
Well, it’s real, and his name is Bryant Arroyo, a bilingual Puerto Rican who has spent a third of his life in prison at SCI Mahanoy in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Arroyo didn’t plan on such an endeavor, as he is already a jailhouse lawyer. But, like much in life, it was forced on him.
In 1998, a former Pennsylvania governor, Tom Ridge, invited an area businessman to join him on a trek to South Africa. He, John W. Rich Jr., was a power plant operator and a major landowner in the Mahanoy Susquehanna County area, a distressed, impoverished region where coal mines closed down decades ago. Rich met and made deals with the South African Sasol energy and chemical company, and before long, he announced plans for a major coal-to-liquid-gas project, literally right next door to the state prison in Mahanoy.
By every measure, this was a done deal, for Rich, his family and colleagues contributed to federal, state and local politicians (who supported his plan without dissent), and he was even bipartisan in this effort, gaining the praise and support of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.
State permits were issued for the $800 million plant, and state subsidies cut the costs by hundreds of millions of bucks.
But Arroyo, a curious and inquisitive man, having read about the proposed plant in local papers, felt uneasy.
“What if this isn’t safe?” he wondered.
He visited the prison library, asked for the environmental impact statement (a study required by the Environmental Protection Agency), read it — read it again — and determined he would do everything in his power to stop it.
But what could one man — a prisoner at that — do?
He talked to everybody he could — gangbangers, guards — everybody. Under prison rules, petitions are forbidden. So, he wrote a letter — and made hundreds of copies — to Mahanoy Township supervisors, each copy mailed by one prisoner. Within weeks, the local township supervisors had received over 400 letters — and these politicians appeared in a local paper looking disturbed.
When a local reporter tried to belittle him by referencing his criminal conviction, Arroyo simply went back to work, and before long over 900 letters flooded the offices of the township supervisors.
His activities even attracted the attention and support of CELDEF — the Community Environmental Legal Defense and Educational Fund — which crafted an ordinance for the township barring any nonrenewable energy projects that threatened the area’s health and safety.
Even prison guards, through their union local, opposed the project, with union secretary Timothy Teltow (a prison guard and resident of nearby Shenandoah), telling reporters, “I just can’t see why this facility is being built right next to a state penitentiary.”
Eventually, within a few years, the done deal was done. Over. Dead.
An $800 million coal gasification plant, supported by powerful corporations (like Bechtel and Texaco) and politicians (like the late Sen. Arlen Specter and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum) had to submit.
But it began when one man, Bryant Arroyo — a prisoner no less — became a ‘jailhouse environmentalist’ — and said no.