Image: Eastern State Penitentiary, Exterior Wall and Rose Hips (photo by Isabel Lane)
The relationship between prisons and environments is often less than obvious, perhaps simply because the carceral system is so entangled with the word *justice* that *environmental justice* seems beside the point. Prisons are theoretically sites of “criminal justice,” but they are also massive networks of racial and social injustice. It should be no surprise, then, that environmental injustice is deeply entangled here, even if it is not central to our imagination of prison. Products of Our Environment (POE) hopes to center the environmental in our conception of prisons and justice, and we are doing this through an arts-based collaboration between people in and outside of prison.
Speaking in concrete terms, one of the most basic ways in which incarcerated populations are especially vulnerable to environmental issues, climate change, and the effects of energy production is the immobility, or “stuckness [https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2018.1544917],” they experience. Severe heat exacerbated by climate change, proximity to sites of nuclear or fossil fuel production, and obstacles to evacuation during disasters are just some of the concrete illustrations of the population’s vulnerability to environmental harm. The Human Rights Defense Center details some of the issues at the heart of environmental justice and prison in their response [https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/media/publications/EJ%202020%20letter%20to%20EPA%20HRDC%2 0updated%20comment%207-28-16%20with%20Cover%20Letter%202.pdf] to the EPA’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda.
According to the HRDC, the EPA has ignored repeated calls to recognize incarcerated people, who represent “a unique, distinct demographic of people forced to reside *inside* an industrial facility,” as an environmental justice community. This matters, they argue, because “prisoners are [then] excluded from environmental justice protections, both in the permitting of prisons and the permitting of other industrial facilities operating in proximity to prisons.” POE is then responding to what we see as the understudied and underrepresented intersections between prisons, energy, and the environment. My co-organizer Jared Bozydaj and I understand this partnership as a way of building knowledges—data, art, experience.
Free people have access to information that is kept from the imprisoned, and incarcerated people have access to data and experience that is inaccessible to people outside the carceral system. In an interview with *The Real News*, formerly incarcerated activist Kempis Songster describes [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdHiSfARUQA] water contamination in Pennsylvania prisons and how, in order to gather information on water contamination, incarcerated folks had to “smuggle samples of water out to the streets to be tested.” Or, as Jared wrote about his relationship to energy, “Imagine being locked in a cell controlled by electricity in the middle of a blackout with no access to alternative power sources (candles are contraband).”
Imprisoned people may experience blackouts, the effects of climate change, and polluted living conditions differently and in ways that are mostly invisible to the outside world, but these environmental conditions are also pieces of a shared experience that we hope will build solidarity across the wall. In order to do this, Jared is working with the Lifers and Long-termers Organization, an incarcerated-led group at Fishkill Correctional Facility in NY, to convene a group of people interested in reading and thinking about EJ. After encountering roadblocks to starting the in-person group, we have put together a mailing with a piece of writing (a poem by formerly incarcerated poet Jimmy Santiago Baca), response questions, creative prompts, and a recipe provided by an incarcerated participant. We are excited to see how this works; the benefit to this model is that it allows us to connect with incarcerated folks across the country.
The questions and prompts for this first mailing introduce our participants to environmental justice and the ideas of prison abolition and reform, but we will devote a future mailing to a reading focused on energy production and use. Even in this first installment, we touch upon energy with some of our questions about Baca’s poem, asking respondents to reflect on the mention of solar panels, energy use, and sustainability in prison. Our first mailing was sent out with a letter of introduction from me and Jared, as well as instructions for sending responses by USPS. Our initial list of recipients includes twenty-five men in multiple prisons across New York and Massachusetts, but we plan to expand the recipient list as we make connections in other prisons. We will also send the mailing to approximately fifteen outside participants, many of whom took part in a workshop organized by Jane Robbins Mize, the PPEH Public Pedagogies Fellow and a POE collaborator. We will continue to collect readings, prompts, and questions for future mailings, and we make the solicitation of feedback from participants in and outside of prison central to our process. As Jared wrote in our introductory letter, “Your responses will breathe life into this project, and it is yours as much as it is ours.”