The first of series of reports from the 18th International Conference on Penal Abolition, based on the workshops and talks that took place over three days at Birkbeck university in London. This report is based on a talk from activists from the UK based Community Action on Prison Expansion teamed with activists from the US network Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons to discuss their campaigns on the intersection of prison abolition and the environment.
What do we mean when we say a prison is toxic? The prison industrial complex is a toxic force, doing harm to the people it is inflicted upon and reproducing an oppressive logic throughout society. But on a more material level prisons are often built on literal contaminated land, poisoning both prisoners and communities with their construction and operation. Prisons also lower the value of surrounding land, meaning heavily polluting sites such as incinerators are built nearby.
Community Action on Prison Expansion gave an update on their fight against prison expansion plans laid out by the government in the 2015 Prison Safety and Reform white paper, which set out an expansion of the prison estate. The 1 billion pound project would increase prison places by 10,000 through the expansion of existing prisons and the construction of 7 so called mega prisons and 5 smaller community prisons. Post Brexit a new alarming possibility has compounded the situation with the government proposing the expand the use of prison labour to make up for the economic damage of leaving the EU.
Local campaigns against new prisons have had mixed results over the past year. In Wales local activists won a victory in the fight against the proposed HMP Port Talbot which would have opened 1600 prison places. In addition the Welsh government recently announced a moratorium on further prison development in Wales. In England, prisons in Rochester, Wigan and Manchester have been delayed. However planning permission has been granted for HMP Full Sutton in Yorkshire and construction is underway for mega-prisons in Wellingborough and Leicester.
Environmental issues factor into the campaigns against local prisons in a number of ways. The proposed site of HMP Full Sutton has a legacy of radioactive contamination from nuclear weapons stored on an RAF base. Concerns have been raised over the danger of asbestos to builders redeveloping HMP Hindley. In Leicester, the environmental impact of the building of a new mega-prison at HMP Glen Parva has factored into the campaign with local activists highlighting a loss of habitats for bats, hedgehogs and toads, as well as high risk of water contamination.
Environmental issues have been used to great tactical effect on individual local campaigns in the UK, but we can look to the US for a developed abolitionist critique of the prison industrial complex from an environmental perspective. Campaign Against Toxic Prisons builds solidarity between the environmental justice and prison abolition movements. In the past the radical environmental movement has been unconcerned with the prison industrial project. However after the September the 11th attacks and the Patriot Act the so called Green Scare brought heavy scrutiny and repression, leaving activists facing long sentences in federal and state prisons. CFPT wants to contribute to the abolitionist movement whilst acknowledging that they have much to learn from the decades of abolitionist struggle in the US.
Thinking through the intersection of prison abolition and the environment opens up new fronts in the fight against the prison industrial complex. Prisons are socially toxic, and undesirable fixtures in communities. They are often built on polluted land, next to other undesirable developments such as housing for the poor or people of colour. An example of this phenomenon is the notorious prison Rikers Island in New York. In addition, built on an island in the middle of the Hudson river, Rikers is frequently exposed to flooding, further endangering prisoners who are often the last priority in a city’s evacuation plans.
Prison contamination can take different forms. A issue in US prisons has been tainted drinking water provided to prisoners. Just one of the many examples is that of SCI Fayette, a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania where prisoners reported that the drinking water was brownish and had ‘a funky smell.’ Keith Cole, a lifer at the Wallace Pack Unit in Texas, raised concerns about arsenic laced drinking water and a lack of air conditioning at the unit, which meant that in the summer months prisoners were forced to buy bottled water or drink the poisoned tap water. Cole brought two lawsuits against the state Department of Corrections over the issue and won. While the situation in Wallace improved, problems like these can be found in facilities across the United States.
It seems obvious that the fight against the prison industrial complex needs to take place on multiple levels: local campaigns against prisons in communities, nationally against state implementations of prison policies and internationally, building solidarities between movements to fight the increasingly multinational nature of the prison industrial complex. Some of this is already playing out, campaigns are already looking to strengthen connections made in previous years, supporting each other on multiple fronts to advance the fight against toxic prisons.