When a society uses mass incarceration as a means of control, we know it has social impacts, but a panel on “The Ecology of a Police State” at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) March 6 explored how prisons also impact the environment.
Panelists presented to a packed audience at the UO School of Law how prisons are linked not only to oppression, but how these “often-overpopulated human warehouses” are also tied to direct and indirect environmental degradation and environmental racism, and are now being rebranded as part of a “green economy.”
Paul Wright, editor and executive director of Prison Legal News and Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) and a prisoner until his release in 2003, gave the example of Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, when speaking of how prisons are often built in areas that have been exploited by logging and mining. “The trees are gone, the jobs are gone but, hey, we will build a prison,” Wright said.
He pointed to the example of California’s Kern Valley State Prison, where arsenic was discovered in the water weeks after its 2005 opening, and yet six years later, men incarcerated there were still forced to drink the unhealthy water.
Prisons also get built in fragile areas, Wright said, and then, to add insult to injury, the prison system has taken to “co-opting the rhetoric of the environmental movement,” building LEED-certified prisons and touting that the prison has a composting program — exploiting 10 prisoners paid 10 cents an hour to compost.
The “language of the environmental movement is used to further an agenda of mass incarceration and violations of human rights,” he said.
HRDC is launching a Prison Ecology project to map these connections between large-scale incarceration and environmental destruction.
Wright was followed by Michael Coyle, an associate professor and penal abolitionist at Cal State Chico. He delved into the social construction of the “discarded person” who gets put into a “discarded space,” when in fact, all people have value and all spaces have value, he said.
Also on the panel was attorney Ben Rosenfeld, whose work recently led to the release of environmental activist Eric McDavid 11 years early, after it was revealed that prosecutors withheld key documents at trial.
Rosenfeld and Chaone Mallory, an associate professor at Villanova University, took different looks at the intersection of the environmental community with others who are incarcerated in prisons at vastly higher numbers and, as Rosenfeld put it, “into the tools activists have to create more solidarity with those who are oppressed.”
Max Rameau, director of the Center for Pan African Development, who did organizing work in Ferguson, Missouri, said, “Fixing some of the problems with the police state cannot be done by the police themselves; they don’t make those decisions.”
He compared black communities in the U.S. to a “domestic colony” and said as such the “black community serves as a dumping ground.”
Rameau continued, “We are not undereducated and over-incarcerated by choice. No one is a colony by choice. The police are an occupying force in black communities in the U.S.”
He called for a fundamental move toward “community control over the police” and to “deconstruct the very meaning of police and redeploy to serve, not harm.” He called for local communities to be able to vote on whether to keep or dump their police, and have a civilian panel that administrates every aspect of the police.
According to Rameau, “Police behavior should reflect needs and wants of community, and the community gets to decide who walks around with guns and arrests people.”
An in-depth packet of information related to the panel can be found at PIELC.org under the link labeled CLE credit or at wkly.ws/1ys.