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  • Writer's pictureKeneisha Charles

Prisons, Policing, & Climate Change

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

A Black person holding a sign that reads “abolish the police” in the foreground with buildings in the background.

Image: Daniel Arauz / Flickr

On Earth Day 2021, CURB Prisons, a California statewide coalition of grassroots organizations working to transition the prison industrial complex, made a post with this hard-hitting title: “Prisons are environmental disasters”.

With it, they exposed an intersection not often discussed in the mainstream environmental movement: prisons, policing, and climate change.

Combining both principles of Black radical thought and environmental justice, abolition climate justice was born from this convergence.

Together, abolition and climate justice lay at the crux of intersectional environmentalism.

What is Abolition?

Abolition in the past referred to the dismantling of slavery and the emancipation of enslaved African-descended peoples globally. Rooted deeply in Black radical traditions and thought, abolition has expanded and become a way “to think about substantive human freedoms not-as-yet won”, as American professors Malini Ranganathan and Eve Bratman write.

Woods Ervin, an abolitionist who works with Critical Resistance, describes abolition as “both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.”

As Ervin continues, “Abolition, very simply, refers to the practice and preparation for a world in which we prioritize collective care, safety, health, and happiness of every single person and reorient ourselves around this priority.”

Much of abolitionist work focuses on the violence of policing and the prison industrial complex. Instead of reform which is a reactive measure, abolition takes a more preventative measure by “creating the conditions for a world in which police, prisons, and prosecutors cannot exist,” Mon M, co-author of the #8toAbolition campaign, says. Prisons are no longer needed because the conditions that push people to harm others no longer exist.

Rachel Herzing, executive director of the Center for Political Education and co-founder of Critical Resistance, says, “To me, prison-industrial complex abolition, which is the kind of abolition on which my work is based, means the elimination of coercive systems of retribution, vengeance, containment, and control, and the blossoming of systems that support us to live healthy, well, self-determined lives.”

Writer and activist Yasmin Nair builds on this, saying, “We have to start moving toward systems that don't make decisions about whether or not people deserve equality, resources, schooling, free water, all of that.”

But abolition is not limited to policing and prisons.

“Abolition requires us to demolish certain kinds of systems that have already begun their own kinds of surveillance and exploitation of various populations,” Nair continues. “The entire system of education at all levels, all the way up to the higher education level, and the nonprofit-industrial complex (which commercializes social services and social justice)—to me, those are the two systems that are most invested in policing in the sense that they are assisting in creating class categories.”

Abolition “necessitates the dismantling of imperialist, cisheteropatriarchal, capitalist extraction, and provides a prefigurative model for being in our communities in ways that reflect the world we want to build,” Ervin summarises.

This future world is full and nuanced. “Liberation, to us, means so many things that cannot be captured here, from everyone having what they need to live well, to restoring our relationship with the Earth,” Mon M, co-author of the #8toAbolition campaign, says.

This is where abolition climate justice comes into play.

What is Abolition Climate Justice?

Abolition climate justice specifically “centers history, intersectional experiences, and forms of care, healing, and solidarity already practiced by grassroots groups rather than imposing expert plans from the outside,” Ranganathan and Bratman explain.

Ranganathan and Bratman developed four key principles of abolition climate justice that scholar Ingrid Joylyn Paredes summarized:

“1. History is always present. We cannot deny the colonial roots of the climate crisis, fueled by industrialization and a mindset geared for extraction of resources.

2. Climate change is not just an environmental issue. We have to look at solutions through an intersectional lens.

3. Looking at climate through an intersectional lens relies on trust; we cannot prescribe solutions as outsiders, even as scientific experts; we must listen to communities.

4. Climate justice should be about freedom and liberation.”

Looking at the prison industrial complex through an abolition climate justice lens provides a strong example of these principles in motion.

The Prison Industrial Complex & Climate Change

Critical Resistance, an abolitionist organization, defines the prison industrial complex (PIC) as “a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” The PIC is not just prisons themselves, but the powerful political and economic interests behind them that give politicians power and private corporations profit.

Prisons are sites of mass dehumanization that especially target Black communities, with Indigenous and other racialized communities also experiencing disproportionate impacts. Extensive scholarship like the documentary “13th” by Ava DuVernay reveals how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery.

An often overlooked violence of prisons is how the environment impacts them and how they impact the environment.

Prisons, as spaces for “second-class citizens”, are often relegated to undesirable and toxic locations. For example, the Riker’s Island prison in New York City was built on a sanitary landfill and the SCI Fayette prison in Pennsylvania was built on 40 million tons of coal refuse from one of the largest coal preparation plants in the world. This exposes those imprisoned in these places to toxic contaminants which result in widespread health problems. At SCI Fayette, 80% of people imprisoned there developed respiratory, throat, gastrointestinal, skin, and other illnesses due to exposure to high concentrations of mercury, lead, and arsenic.

Given that prisons are disproportionately comprised of Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour, prisons are institutions of environmental racism.

Prisons themselves are also major polluters. In 2004, the California Men’s Colony prison dumped over 220,000 gallons of raw sewage into a creek. This is just one example of the pollution that prisons contribute to.

Incarcerated people are also some of the first to be impacted by the effects of climate change. Rising temperatures provide gruelling conditions for those inside concrete and steel prisons—many of which lack air conditioning. Heatstroke, dehydration, heat rashes, and even heat-related deaths are not uncommon. Rikers Island even has the nickname “The Oven”.

The reverse is also a common occurrence. As TNR reports, “When the heat went out in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center during a February 2019 cold snap, prisoners were left to freeze for almost a full week before officials, amid public outcry, turned the electricity back on.”

As climate change amplifies the intensity and frequency of storms, incarcerated peoples are often literally left behind.

As TNR continues, “During Hurricane Katrina, thousands of prisoners were left to rot in waist-high water; in 2017, Hurricane Harvey saw 3,000 prisoners in Texas stranded without food or water for days; in 2018, prisoners within the evacuation zone on Florida’s coast were left to fend for themselves when Hurricane Michael hit; and when Hurricane Florence rolled through South Carolina, the state declined to evacuate more than a thousand people across multiple prisons.” After storms, prisons often lack clean water, food, clean air, and other basic needs, exposing people to deadly outbreaks like cholera, e coli, and dysentery.

As storms and wildfires increase due to climate change, incarcerated peoples often also have their labour exploited to support disaster relief. Incarcerated peoples in Texas are forced to work in fields during sweltering heat. In California, imprisoned people fight wildfires for pennies. TNR reports, “In other places prisoners are often used as slave labor to clean up the areas devastated by a major storm.” This often exposes them to toxic materials and dangers.

An abolition climate justice perspective recognizes the intersections between state violence, race, and climate justice that intrinsically combine to create the coexisting oppressions of the prison industrial complex.

Moving Towards An Abolitionist Climate Future

As the abolitionists quoted throughout this piece have reiterated, abolition is a process of transformation.

Rachel Herzing explains, “There will be lots of unknowns since it [abolition] requires us to transform our society. They’re opportunities for us to create new ways of relating to each other, new ways of caring for one another, new ways of managing life together. We’ll need to operate from an ethic of collective care rather than individualism, for instance. We’ll need to create dynamics in which we put more care and effort into ensuring people have enough to eat and have safe, stable shelter than into containing and controlling people who have been pushed to the margins.”

Despite the unknowns of what a world without prisons and climate change looks like, one thing is clear: the environmental movement must continue to approach with intersectionality.

As an anonymous member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) wrote, “In order to transform into a society that survives climate change, we collectively need to be led by those who have survived the most harm. So we need poor people, Black people, Black women, Brown people, people who are refugees, to the front. People who have been in hell know how to prevail through hell. We all need that wisdom to survive the hell of this disaster of capitalism.”

This article presents only a brief introduction to abolition climate justice. Transformative justice, community accountability, restorative justice, and more are further practices closely linked to abolition.

For those ready to begin engaging further in abolitionist learning, check out the resources below:

  • Introduction to Abolition by Abolitionist Futures

  • The Abolitionist Toolkit by Critical Resistance

  • If You’re New to Abolition: Study Group Guide by Abolition Journal


About the Author

Keneisha wears rectangular glasses, a blue cardigan with a yellow top underneath. They wear gold hoops, a necklace with a cowrie pendant and their hair up in a yellow headwrap.

Keneisha Charles (they/them) is a Black queer non-binary activist, storyteller, poet, and musician dedicated to co-creating a liberatory future. They currently live on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee in what’s commonly known as Toronto.

Connect with them on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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