#PrisonStrike, Abolition, and Environmental Justice

by Maggie Ellinger-Locke

September 5, 2018

We are in the midst of the largest prison strike in U.S. history. Prisoners are calling for an end to legalized slavery and better conditions, one of the most pressing environmental justice issues of our day.

The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which ended legalized slavery, contains an explicit exemption to this bedrock principle: except as a punishment for a crime. This is one of the key complaints that has led to the ongoing prison strike that began across the country on August 21st and will continue until September 9th, the anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising.

Did you know slavery is still legal under US law? If you or someone close to you has ever spent time in prison, you probably do. The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which ended legalized slavery, contains an explicit exemption to this bedrock principle: except as punishment for a crime. It’s one of the key complaints that has led to the ongoing prison strike that began across the country on August 21—the anniversary of the police murder of Black Panther leader George Jackson. Prisoners will continue their strike, which includes refusals to work, to eat, and to purchase overpriced commissary goods, until September 9, the anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising. It is expected to be the largest prison strike in US history.

The prisoners are calling for the immediate end to slavery, an improvement in their living and working conditions, legislative reform, restoration of voting rights, and more. You can read their list of ten demands here. The strike has been organized by organizers and jailhouse lawyers in prison and out, and groups like the Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Organizing Committee have been promoting the strike for months. More than 300 organizations have endorsed it, including Greenpeace USA.

At the heart of such organizing efforts lies the idea, and the policy goal, of prison abolition. As defined by one of the leading grassroots groups in the prison abolition movement, Critical Resistance, “abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.”

The idea of abolishing prisons and policing has been around as long as prisons and policing. Indeed, modern-day policing explicitly emerged from efforts to catch escaped enslaved people and the enforcement of the Black Codes in the southern United States, even before the Jim Crow era. From those roots has emerged a poisonous tree designed to uphold white supremacy and capitalism in modern times—mass incarceration. And the carceral state is as powerful as ever.

Modern abolitionist movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have made this policy goal central to their political analysis. The Platform of the Movement for Black Lives—which Greenpeace USA has endorsed—is explicitly abolitionist, and activists of various stripes across the country are routinely centering the message that we can and should build a world without police and prisons.

Greenpeace has a unique environmental justice lens it brings to this work, and prisons are no exception. Prisons have long been places where environmental regulations have taken a back seat to profits, and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by both environmental harms and the prison industrial complex. Polluting facilities are more likely to be built in such communities, and the choice of where to build prisons follows this same pattern.

Many prisons are built on locations that are the least likely to be selected for anything else by developers, like old mining sites, Superfund sites, and landfills. According to a 2016 report, at least 598 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund site, with 134 of them just one mile away.

A 2014 report by the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition examined the health of prisoners at SCI Fayette—a prison in rural Pennsylvania constructed on what was once one of the world’s largest coal “cleaning” operations. The report found that 81% of prisoners there suffer from respiratory, sinus, and throat conditions; 68% suffer from GI problems; and 12% reported being diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. Of the 17 prisoners who died at between 2010-2013, 11 died of cancer.

And prison conditions can be made worse by climate change. In 2011, ten prisoners died of heat stroke in Texas state prisons, and as of 2017 the majority of housing units still lack air-conditioning. During Hurricane Harvey, inmates went days without access to basic services, including running water.

Prisons themselves can be a cause of toxic pollution. In 2014 a California state prison was fined $600,000 for spilling 220,000 gallons of raw sewage into a nearby creek that flows into a protected marine estuary. Spills have continued; the prison was fined in both 2015 and 2017 as well.

Indeed, agency regulation is one of the only tools available to push back against such toxic incidents. Between 2012 and 2017 federal and state agencies brought 132 informal actions and 28 formal ones against prisons under the Clean Water Act. Though this is likely just a small sample of the harm that prisons cause our environment and surrounding communities to experience.

One of the few actions prisoners can take to fight their conditions is through the use of lawsuits. But their ability to do this has been curtailed for decades due to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, signed into law by President Clinton (whose policies encouraged and strengthened mass incarceration). Recission of this act is the third listed demand by prison strike organizers.

If all of this sounds alarming, you may be asking yourself what steps you can take to support the strike. There are several, the most important being to educate yourself about the carceral state and opposition movements. Share articles about the strike on social media, and talk about it with your friends and family. The prisoners are relying on those of us privileged enough to be on the outside to amplify their message.

There are also lots of solidarity actions and marches planned across the country you can attend and mobilize others around. You can donate to the strike fund and also make donations to abolitionist organizations doing this work, like Black and Pink, Fight Toxic Prisons, and the Prison Ecology Project. One tactic you can employ is to organize a phone zap, something organizers are explicitly calling for.

In the end, this prison strike isn’t just about slave labor. It is about the institution of prisons and police as concepts, forcing those living outside to think hard about what freedom means in this country, yesterday and today. We must reckon with the way our movements are related—the need to abolish prisons is just as grounded in environmentalism as it is grounded in the strikers’ demand to end US slavery once and for all. Only together can we achieve the justice and change necessary to make this world better. This strike matters—please show it your support.

Maggie Ellinger-Locke

By Maggie Ellinger-Locke

Maggie Ellinger-Locke is a staff attorney and democracy campaigner at Greenpeace USA.

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