The EJ Series, part 14: ‘Looking forward’ – critical environmental justice studies and the prison industrial complex

A particularly pronounced way in which prisons and environmental justice come together is through the methods that the state often employs to criminalize, control and incarcerate people who take measures to defend and ‘save the environment and nonhumans’.

Image by By Georgios Tsichlis , via Shutterstock. Stock photo ID: 615439280

This article is based on a presentation by David Pellow, on a panel entitled ‘EJ Looking Forward’ at the Environmental Justice 2017: Looking Back, Looking Forward Conference, the University of Sydney, 6-8 November 2017.

I want to begin with a story about a man named Bryant Arroyo. Bryant Arroyo is a Puerto Rican man who has served time in a prison in the state of Pennsylvania. Bryant Arroyo is also well known in some quarters because he organized more than 900 of his fellow inmates to write letters to the nearby town supervisors, in which this prison is based, protesting the planned construction of an 800-million-dollar coal gasification plant next door. The coal plant project was defeated, earning Bryant Arroyo, a prisoner, the title of jailhouse environmentalist. Now, he is one of just many people in the United States who has fought against environmental injustices under the unimaginable conditions and brutality of the prison industrial complex in my country.

In thinking about ‘looking forward’ with respect to environmental justice (EJ) research, I want to discuss conditions facing people like Mr Arroyo to consider the utility of what has been called a critical environmental justice studies framework.  Critical EJ studies is as an idea that people have put forth, going back at least till 2005, intended to address some of the limitations and tensions within the literature.

I recently began a project where I am bringing this perspective to light and trying to apply it to the intersection between the prison system and environmental justice concerns. There are many, many ways in which prisons and environmental issues intersect to produce harms to the bodies of inmates, corrections officers and nearby ecosystems and land bases. For example, there are confirmed reports of water contaminated with lead, arsenic and other pollutants at prisons in more than 20 states in the United States including the now infamous case of Flint Michigan, which is in the heart of Genesee County. Many inmates of the Genesee County jail were forced to drink contaminated water while the corrections officers, the prison guards, looked on while drinking from filtered water out of bottles. The Northwest detention centre in the Seattle, Washington area is a privately operated immigrant prison, designed to house more than 1500 immigrants (this gives you a sense of the global scale here) and is directly adjacent to a federally designated toxic superfund site.

A classic EJ studies approach to this topic would likely place a primary emphasis on the degree to which there may be geographic concentrations of prisons and jails next to various communities and neighbourhoods and what remedies must be sought through state-based policy mechanisms. I want to build on that with a critical EJ studies approach to just go a bit further.

The first pillar of that approach opens up our scope of analysis to consider how multiple social categories of difference are intertwined in the making of, and resistance to, environmental injustice.

The U.S. prison system is comprised of a majority of people of colour who hold a lower socioeconomic status. And today, women constitute the single fastest growing group of prisoners. All of these groups face great risk as a result of a range of environmental threats being generated, both inside and outside of the prisons.  So, the point is that all of these categories matter. We must talk about species and ecosystems, and the impacts that prisons place on ecosystems. Such impacts include sewage and other water discharges, a whole host of chemical toxins, fossil fuels, air pollution and hazardous waste, which are all generated from within US prison systems and affect non-human species and communities and waterways, ambient air and nearby land bases.

One campaign I am working on is in Letcher County, Kentucky, in the southern United States. Letcher is the site of a proposed prison project that will be placed on land that is now cleared because there once were mountains there. Those mountains are no longer there because coal companies engaged in mountaintop removal, which is a violent, destructive practice of blowing up mountains to extract coal, reducing ecosystems to poisonous rubble and dust.  This prison is also to be placed in an area comprised of low-income communities, which raises clear environmental justice concerns about multiple and layered uses over time that will produce harm to ecosystems and human health. The Letcher County Prison site is also home to second growth forests. Second growth forests that serve as habitats for 71 different known species, including the endangered species of the Indiana bat and the grey bat whose lives and fate will be placed in further jeopardy as a result of this proposal.

Research by Alice Mah discusses the importance of multi-scalar analysis. Temporal scales is the second pillar of the critical environmental justice framework, and this figures quite strongly in any study of prisons in the United States because you’ve got to pay attention to history. There has been a lot of talk about our thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it has become a key site of discussion for the relationship between imprisonment and oppression. That document, if you read it very closely, makes quite clear that prisons are ‘legally sanctioned sites of enslavement’ as “punishment for a crime.” Thus, many scholars, myself included, would argue that abolishing the prison system, as we know it today, is an important, unfinished bit of business that was begun with the work of slavery abolition centuries ago.

We can also think about these issues on a microscale, and to do this; we can draw on what the research of Petra Tschakert, which explores the importance of the emphasis on the body. This is an extremely important focus that comes out of feminist scholarship in particular, and feminist environmental justice scholarship as well. Rachel Stein, Cherríe Moraga and others, have argued, as Petra did, that when we redefine our bodies as homes, as lands, as environments, then we can more effectively personalize and therefore politicize the fact that so many of us have our well-being put at risk from a range of threats at the micro-scale. For example, we find that study after study finds that LGBTQ folk and women face extraordinarily high threats of sexual abuse and violence in the prison system. This is not reformable, and it is endemic to prisons.  Also, consider the deliberate use of toxins on prisoner’s bodies – I call these chemical attacks at the microscale. In many US jails and prisons, according to a recent study by Human Rights Watch, we find that inmates with mental disabilities are frequently subjected to punishment and pain compliance techniques that include the use of chemical sprays to the eyes and the body. Sexual abuse and chemical attacks, I would argue, are just two clear examples of environmental injustice in prisons.

We find that many prisons in the US are located on or near former military waste dumps. For example, in my home state of California, we have the Victorville Federal Correctional Complex, which was built on what is known as a former weapons storage area. It is now a military Superfund site, which means it is recognized by the federal government as contaminated land that poses a significant threat to human and/or environmental health. That prison complex is built on the site of the George Air Force Base where that base was once located and where the Department of Defense once buried and stored radioactive nuclear waste creosote tetraethyl lead and munitions.

When I spoke recently to Eric McDavid—a renowned environmentalist and former political prisoner who did time at that site–he told me, ‘I served time at that facility in Victorville. It’s on a Superfund site. The water is contaminated. It’s what you shower with; it’s what you eat with, it’s what you drink”.

The third pillar of EJ studies signals an opportunity to think and act in ways that question our reliance on state dominance, to imagine and achieve environmental injustice. A particularly pronounced way in which prisons and environmental justice come together is through the methods that the state often employs to criminalize, control and incarcerate people who take measures to defend and ‘save the environment and nonhumans’. In recent years, this has been called the ‘green scare’, which includes surveillance, infiltration, intimidation, harassment and imprisonment of activists in radical environmental movements. Therefore, this is a particularly tangible and vicious site of state repression. And for me, the fact that activists working to protect and defend vulnerable ecosystems and nonhumans have been targeted by the state as ‘eco-terrorists’ and imprisoned, suggests to radical movements that embracing and reinforcing state power may be counterproductive to efforts to improve and secure environmental justice.

Returning to the story of Bryant Arroyo, if he could shut down a coal gasification plant from within the belly of the carceral beast, that is the U.S. prison industrial complex, uplifting himself and nine hundred of his fellow inmates, changing the power dynamics between free and unfree and securing a rather extraordinary victory for environmental justice, from within the context of such violent captivity…then, surely you and I and everyone else on this side of the prison walls in the so-called ‘free world’ must have far greater power and promise and potential than we ever imagined, and can truly go much further toward creating new knowledge and transformative social change for environmental justice.

Professor David N. Pellow is the Dehlsen Chair and Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he teaches courses on environmental and social justice, race/class/gender and environmental conflict, human-animal conflicts, sustainability, and social change movements that confront our socioenvironmental crises and social inequality. He has volunteered for and served on the Boards of Directors of several community-based, national, and international organizations that are dedicated to improving the living and working environments for people of color, immigrants, indigenous peoples, and working class communities, including the Global Action Research Center, the Center for Urban Transformation, the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health, Global Response, Greenpeace USA, and International Rivers.