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The ecology of a prison nation

Living in a police state

In the summer of 2013 I wrote “The Ecology of a Police State” [EF!J Vol. 34 No.1, Brigid 2014], a polemic drawing connections between repression, bloated law enforcement budgets, and the success of the environmental movement. A year later, the country burst into anti-cop rebellion. I don’t think environmentalists-as-we’ve-known-them can take much credit for instigating the protests which unexpectedly spiraled out of Ferguson, Missouri. But the more important point is that the environmental movement can and must start to view struggle against a police state as a basic part of a long-term winning strategy for defending the Earth. The time is ripe to further the conversation that “The Ecology of a Police State” started, and there is no clearer indication of the police state’s existence (just in case you weren’t yet convinced) than the industry of mass incarceration in the US, which spends billions in public money employing cops, guards, prosecutors, and judges to keep us in line.

Prison Nation


Shackling the Earth

For the last decade there have consistently been well over two million people incarcerated in the US, not to mention the millions under “correctional supervision.” That’s a 500% increase since the ‘80s. For conversation’s sake, let’s set the starting line of this jump at the 1979 McDuffie riots in Miami, started in response to the brutal killing of a Black motorcyclist on December 21 at the hand of four white cops who were acquitted by an all-white jury. This incident (along with several others across the country) can be viewed as an indication that, despite all the counterinsurgency and COINTELPRO efforts of the police state, which had crushed social movements throughout the ‘70s, the pot was boiling over beyond control.

While white supremacy was a driving force behind the rise in mass incarceration policies, the prison-boom statistics also overlay neatly with the rise of anti-industrial sentiments from the burgeoning ecology movement, specifically the rise of environmental justice (sparked by the hostage-taking of EPA employees at Love Canal in 1980) and the mass movement capacity demonstrated by the anti-nuke movement. From Toxic Tresspassing: The Story of the Love Canal Uprising (via

Few people know how a hostage-taking incident transformed a shy housewife from the working-class community near Niagara Falls into one of the founding mothers of the environmental justice movement. Spark-plug community organizer Lois Gibbs traces the electrifying arc that led from sick children to an international rallying cry for human rights. Because, says Gibbs, “It is just not right morally or ethically that somebody with a corporate interest, with a dollar interest, is making a decision each and every day in this country about who lives and who dies.”

It’s almost entirely poor people, with an extreme disproportion of people from Black and recent-immigrant communities, who find themselves locked up. Black and Latino men make up more than 60% of the prison population, but only 15% of the male population in the US.

As soon as it became obvious that the US was going to learn a similar lesson to that of the Roman Empire 1,600 years ago, the state embarked on an unprecedented social experiment some have called the War on Crime. Rather than accept the inevitable demise that comes with over-extending your reach and building an economic foundation on theft and slavery, the US would try to stretch out its empire by throwing those deemed most likely to revolt into the criminal justice system.

According to a US Department of Justice report, in 2006 over 7.2 million people were in prison, on probation, or on parole (released from prison with restrictions). That means roughly one in every 32 Americans were held by the “justice system.” This is the highest number of captives in human history—higher in number and percentage than Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia in the 1930’s.

Mass incarceration has proven very effective in quelling domestic dissent by imprisoning potential rebels. And, yes, those are millions of people who might otherwise be making hostages out of the government officials who rubber stamp the permits that poison their children as they did at Love Canal, or burning strip malls to the ground ala LA in ‘92.

On the other hand, the police state employs otherwise unemployable young men to do their bidding in places like the rural mountains of Appalachia, where the energy industry has blown communities to bits for coal and left them begging for the crumbs of prison guard jobs to repress their poor urban counterparts.


But that ain’t all

Those are reasons enough to incorporate anti-prison work into the eco-resistance movement. But it turns out that the prison facilities themselves—where people who may otherwise be our friends and neighbors are locked in warehouses—are also sources of great environmental concern. Even the EPA seems to agree. Writer Jonathan Simon refers to prisons as metaphorical human toxic waste dumps. As it turns out, many prisons are toxic waste dumps in a very literal sense.

From being massive users of water and energy, to generating massive amounts of sewage and toxic pollution, these places are essentially the population of a small town packed into a facility the size of a factory farm—with a similar output (antibiotics and all). And their sweatshop-like factories are notorious for violations related to industrial contamination, much like the Mexican maquiladoras that they mirror.

The environments surrounding prison and jail facilities share common, unique characteristics—what could be called prison ecology.

Despite the prison industry’s attempt to paint itself green with LEED certifications, it continues to be an ecological nightmare resembling a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting, where political prisoners sit in solitary confinement for decades on end in a prison built on top of a toxic abandoned mine site (as is the case with ADX in Colorado, built next to a designated EPA superfund site in a uranium mill town with poisoned water).

Or how about the coal mine site in Pennsylvania where a recent report shows that prisoners at the Fayette State Correctional Institution in LaBelle have been experiencing an increase in cancer rates? The report, put together by the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition, says that the culprit is a nearby coal ash dump. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11 prisoners died from cancer between January 2010 and December 2013, another six have been diagnosed with cancer, and eight more have undiagnosed tumors or lumps. More than 80 percent of 75 prisoners responding to the investigators experienced respiratory problems.

Picture this as the setting of a dystopic graphic novel: You are a prisoner locked in a cell as floodwaters raise around you (as happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina), the rising waters cause a gas leak which sparks an explosion killing and injuring inmates (like in Pensacola, Florida, last year), and just as you’re forced to drink water tainted by a massive chemical spill (West Virginia) you find out that you are on top of a leaky landfill (Rikers Island, New York) and next door to a crusty old nuke plant whose license should have expired, but didn’t, and they have no real plan to evacuate you in the case of a meltdown (Hudson Valley, New York), and no one gives a FUCK. You try to fight back, but that only lands you in solitary confinement, where newly-installed solar panels power the flood lights that stay on all night long (Washington and California).

In light of all that, the regular occurrence of prison uprisings and riots shouldn’t come as a surprise, not to mention the frequent-but-rarely-reported food and work strikes. But tension from the inside has not been enough to undermine the system of mass incarceration.

Serious pressure needs to increase from the outside as well. This is where the need for anti-prison environmental campaigns and actions can and should come in. In a similar way that organizing and litigation surrounding health concerns resulted in successful challenges to California’s overcrowded prisons and led to unprecedented plans for prisoner releases, environmental concerns could also force the government to face their failures at meeting their own public health and safety regulations, for prisoners and for communities near detention facilities.

Prison ecology

With all this in mind, the seeds of an anti-prison environmental movement are being planted in the fertile soil of the grassroots direct action network. With any luck, and a ton of hard work, they will grow roots deeper and further out, into mainstream eco-groups. But as with all growth, its time in the germination stage will influence the rest of its life.

One place where this is starting is the Prison Ecology Project, an offshoot of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which is getting off the ground this year. HRDC is renowned for its monthly magazine Prison Legal News (PLN), published by current and former prisoners, which serves as the premiere resource of jailhouse lawyers and activists, with readers in most every one of the 2,200 prisons in the US, as well as many of the nation’s approximately 3,000 county jails and detention facilities.

The Prison Ecology Project will initially consist of research and education on the intersections of mass incarceration and environmental degradation. The project also aims to track the permitting process of existing and proposed facilities. Direct action environmental groups such as Earth First! and Rising Tide could take the research of Prison Ecology and push it out onto the frontlines of the eco-resistance, taking environmentalism to a place it has rarely ever seen before—into one of the deepest corners of the belly of the beast.

The stated priorities of the Project include addressing the following: Environmental justice (health and safety) for those incarcerated and those in surrounding communities, prisons built on toxic waste sites, with contaminated water supplies, etc.; general impact of prisons on water quality and quantity; contamination due to sewage discharges from prisons; impacts of prison construction, expansion, and operation on plant and animal species listed for protection; prisoners’ participation in the environmental movement; and greenwashing of prisons via LEED certifications, etc.

From supporting prisoners to shutting down prisons

The FBI’s Green Scare created a new category of political prisoners, and the ecological resistance movement learned many hard lessons because of it. The country became aware that caring too much about protecting the Earth could land you in prison. We learned something that our predecessors who have struggled for liberation in recent decades have faced—that mass incarceration and its chilling effects presents one of the largest obstacles to social change that the US empire has placed in front of us.

But resistance has presented a chance to expose the façade of freedom in this country, and strike close to the core of industrial society. It’s time for the environmental movement to find its niche in the anti-prison struggle, beyond mere prisoner support and towards effective attacks on the prison system—the central industry responsible for maintaining the existence of a police state and the capitalist economy that it serves.

To recap briefly, from “The Ecology of a Police State”:

[I]t’s crystal clear that global ecology will never be stabilized as long as the police [and their prisons] have anything to do with it.

That’s right. Stopping the tar sands’ atmospheric climate bomb, keeping GMOs out of our food, and defending wolves’ ability to restore biodiversity depends on getting rid of the fuzz. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new movement initiative that aims to reduce the CO2 parts per million (ppm) by simultaneously slashing the cpms (cops per million). Cops are not only the industrial empire’s first line of defense against, well, us. They are also massive usurpers of the public financial resources that might otherwise be put towards restoring the Earth.

Where the Earth First! movement was once known for its epic wilderness corridor proposals in the ‘80s which became a basic foundation for the future of conservation biology, I think this plan too will shape the face of the ecology to come.

The Prison Ecology Project offers revolutionary ecologists an avenue to take the offensive against the prison industrial complex. And though it’s still in its infancy, it came out swinging in March [2015] with strong comments on the proposed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of a new proposed federal prison on a mountaintop removal coal site in Kentucky.

Panagioti is an organizer with Everglades Earth First! and a former editor of the Earth First! Journal. He longs to see the demise of the 30-plus jails and prisons in his home watershed.

This May 14, 2015 article was reprinted with permission.

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