Panagioti Tsolkas and Karen Smith are organizing for environmental justice for prisoners. 

Photo by Sarah Senfeld.

As Hurricane Irma battered homes across the state of Florida, causing tens of thousands to evacuate, another population’s living place, rarely thought of, was also affected—the state’s prisoners.

It was the largest prisoner evacuation in the state’s history. 7,000 prisoners from south and central Florida were evacuated north, creating cramped living conditions.

A few days later, some of these silent figures were allowed to leave to work on repairing the damage caused by the hurricane.

You might not have seen them picking up debris from the street, but you’ve definitely seen the sign, orange and black like the prison uniforms it represents: State Prisoners Working.

“When slavery was abolished, [the Constitution] retained the clause that said slavery is illegal unless you’re in prison,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, referring to the 13th amendment, which states that slavery remains legal for a convicted party.

In 2015, Tsolkas founded the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP), a grassroot organization dedicated to coordinating local advocacy groups and direct actions. The campaign specifically addresses the intersection of mass incarceration and climate change, and the environmental impacts of the growing prison industry, under the term “prison ecology.”

FTP argues that the prison system puts prisoners at the risk of dangerous environmental conditions and that the construction of prisons can degrade the local environment.

“Most prisons are in remote, rural communities.” Tsolkas said. “You’re lucky if you catch it in the headlines of some rural weekly newspaper. For the most part it goes unspoken.”

Climate justice is often focused on the white, middle class, Tsolkas said.

In an effort to change the narrative, FTP organizes direct actions against prisons.

“We’re bringing the white, middle-class environmental movement into the real world of the police state and the prison nation,” he said, letting out a self-deprecating chuckle. Tsolkas is a white, middle-class man, with a sun-bleached beard and a weatherbeaten quality to his clothes.

A man constantly in motion, Tsolkas, despite his appearance and background, has been advocating for justice since he was 16, when he was dragged off school grounds by a resource officer.

His crime? Protesting the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

“It was turning the educational process into this weird and twisted scientific cultivation,” Panagioti said earnestly. He said he had no desire to become a programmed “math and science automaton to compete in the global economy.”

Right before the students were scheduled to take the test, Tsolkas stood up on a chair in the cafeteria and asked his fellow lunch-goers to protest the exam. The room became rowdy fast, and he was swiftly disciplined. 

This was a step in Tsolkas’  personal education, and he began to see “school as this fundamental social control tool,” he said.

Panagioti left home shortly after to travel around the country, protesting for Earth First!, a radical environmental organization, and dumpster diving to sustain himself.

In 1999, alongside friends from the Tampa area, Tsolkas road-tripped to Seattle to protest the World Trade Organisation where he was arrested as a John Doe along with 157 others. He remained unidentified until his release.

“I could see things a little more clearly,” he said. “How the system responds to someone who doesn’t agree with it.”

Tsolkas sits by paperbacks haphazardly stacked on shelves in the warmly lit space of the Civic Media Center. A letter is lying on the table in front of him. Mailed by a prisoner named Bryant Arroyo, he received it that morning.

In the letter, Arroyo describes “bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, sore throats and dizziness by an overwhelming majority of the inmate population,” the result of water contamination, Tsolkas said.

In the past, Tsolkas worked with Prison Legal News, a magazine for members of the incarcerated community to voice their own concerns and experiences. Tsolkas’s job was to was to compile all the incoming mail into a database.

He received hundreds of letters from prisoners and continues to get them today. At the end of every working day, he said he could not get all the paper through the scanner.

“It became an overwhelming task,’ he said.

The letters were a plea for help. Prisoners wrote of rape and assault, as well as inhumane living conditions like the ones Arroyo’s letter described.

Sitting with Tsolkas is Karen Smith, who joined the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons last fall. Smith, among others, is working with Tsolkas on the campaign’s latest fight against a proposed phosphate mine in Bradford and Union counties that will be located next to a local hospital and a state prison.

“We are pushing the envelope for them to take a stand on this and to publicly say either ‘We are opposed to people in our care and control being subjected to this kind of environment toxicity” or to say, ‘we don’t care,’” Smith said.

“We’re bringing the white, middle-class environmental movement into the real world of the police state and the prison nation.”

Tsolkas said it is no coincidence that the phosphate mine is situated right next a state prison.

“Essentially, they’re a disposable population because they’re not viewed as fully human,” he said.

About four miles northeast of the Civic Media Center is a prisoner work camp. It is easy to become blind to the orange and black signs and to forget the people who keep our pavements clean and bike paths running. But Tsolkas and Smith do not allow themselves to forget.

“Our whole town is covered with slaves doing our county work,” Smith said. 

Much of Tsolkas’s work is about seeing the world the way it is and believing that real change is within reach. He is, as one of his fellow organizers said, fundamentally optimistic.

“The ultimate goal is no prisons,” he said. “The only green prison is an empty one.” •