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A Green New Deal for Decarceration

To save the planet, a Green New Deal has to transform our entire society. Part of that transformation must include the deconstruction of our system of mass incarceration.

Jairo Andres Lerma Payan of New York City and founder of New York Afro Latinos Immigration Service, holds a sign during a rally June 17, 2013 at the Lafayette Park in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

This June, after nearly two decades of organizing, local activist groups in eastern Kentucky stopped construction of a federal prison in Letcher County. In a powerful rebuke to Kentucky Congressman Hal “Prince of Pork” Rogers, the project to build the prison on a reclaimed mountaintop looks dead for good: Trump’s proposed 2020 budget rescinded $510 million previously approved for construction.

The news is a major victory — not just for the anti-prison activists who have fought for decades against the new facility, but also for the environmentalists who became their allies.

In fights against prison expansion, activists across the country are forging alliances on unexpected common ground: the struggle against ecological devastation. These campaigns’ lesson — that the fight against mass incarceration and for environmental justice are tightly interwoven, and require the same political coalitions — should inform the policies and principles of the Green New Deal movement.

In Appalachia, the immediate ecological fallout of the proposed federal prison in Letcher County proved an effective rallying cry. Local grassroots organizations like the Letcher Governance Project and the Prison Ecology Project, together with national environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, argued that the new facility would contaminate local watersheds, pollute the air, and threaten endangered wildlife habitats, including a rare old-growth forest.

And last winter, twenty-one federal prisoners from Letcher County sued the Bureau of Prisons, arguing that they should have been a party to the environmental impact assessment process. All told, environmental and anti-prison activists successfully stalled the project for two and a half years, a key reason that promised funds for the prison were finally scrapped.

Like activists with the California Prison Moratorium Project in the early 2000s, and groups like The Mothers of East LA before them, anti-prison organizers in Appalachia grasp the underlying links between ecological extraction and mass imprisonment.

The devastation wrought by blowing up mountaintops to extract buried fossil fuels parallels the community ruin caused by forcibly removing residents from their neighborhoods to be warehoused in massive, faraway, high-security institutions. Both cause enormous injury to humans and habitats alike. Neither offers long-term economic benefit, security, or safety to the communities in whose name these extractions are publicly justified.

These communities deserve better. Instead of prison-building as local development, they deserve real investment in living-wage jobs, social infrastructure for healthy living, and just solutions to ecological and social problems, from rampant inequality to the climate emergency.

In other words, they deserve a Green New Deal. And like the people housed inside the correctional institutions they are asked to embrace, what they really deserve is what we’re calling a Green New Deal for Decarceration.

A Green New Deal for Decarceration echoes Bernie Sanders’s sweeping criminal justice and Green New Deal plans, released over the past week. But in order to expand the climate justice and decarceration movements and build the coalitional power required to avoid both carceral and ecological catastrophe, we need to integrate these fights, and tell a clearer story about shared values, goals, and strategies. We need to get explicit about how the exploitation and racism underpinning climate change are also those that animate mass criminalization and mass incarceration.

Shared Logic, Shared Goals

Grassroots activists have been making the link between environmental justice and criminal justice for years, and we’ve learned from them. We’re scholars engaged in anti-prison and anti-poverty organizing. One of us studies, and makes documentaries about, the intersection of racial capitalism with prison landscapes and climate change; the other studies a range of mass incarceration’s brutal consequences for public health. We’re both focused on the climate emergency and the devastations caused by mass incarceration. And we both see the Green New Deal idea as a chance to amplify the shared goals of prison abolition and climate justice.

Indeed, the Green New Deal’s underlying logic shares something foundational with the prison abolition movement. Prison abolitionists like to say that our objective isn’t so much the abolition of prisons as it is the abolition of a society that could have prisons. Prison abolition isn’t just a movement against cages. It’s also a movement for alternative ways of living together and building social infrastructure.

Similarly, the Green New Deal is about abolishing carbon pollution and stabilizing the climate. It also recognizes that the only way we can do these things is by transforming the economy and the social-environmental relations that constitute it. But beyond this shared premise, what does the Green New Deal have to do with prison abolition, or even more modest systematic efforts at decarceration?

The United States is the biggest carbon polluter in history. It also incarcerates a higher rate and number of its citizens than any other country in the world. The practices that have led to the kinds of ecological devastation we now face are social and economic systems, rooted in social relationships of exploitation, domination, and inequity. They also undermine the well-being of large numbers of people, especially poor people, communities of color, indigenous people, and migrants — the same groups that are then targeted by the criminal justice system as the state’s favored mode of crisis-abatement.

This hints at how the Green New Deal can dovetail with meaningful criminal justice reform. As the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposes, climate change and inequality should be tackled at the same time, by providing everyone, in addition to a guaranteed job, with “. . . high-quality health care; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature.” These exact same measures could also be the route to meaningful decarceration, or even prison abolition in this country.

Here are three fronts on which the Green New Deal might further include meaningful, transformative criminal justice reform into its agenda, becoming a Green New Deal for Decarceration.

Redefining Public Safety to Include Social and Economic Stability

Jobs

The Green New Deal already calls for a jobs guarantee, based on the expansion of renewable energies, ecosystem restoration, and major new public works. That guarantee can make a huge difference in the lives of people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system, or who are at risk of it.

As sociologist Bruce Western has shown, when mass incarceration accelerated in the 1990s, one-third of incarcerated men were unemployed when they were sent to prison. Western and others have long argued that mass incarceration is in part a labor market institution. The corrections system is a racialized response to a surplus population of labor: the fact that there aren’t enough well-paying full-time jobs to absorb people’s energies and meet their needs. Mass incarceration thus serves to fracture and discipline the working class, while at the same time artificially decreasing official unemployment rates.

Today, employment prospects for formerly incarcerated people are still grim, even after campaigns to “ban the box” where job applicants must advertise their criminal records. Now, in places where employers can’t ask about applicants’ prior convictions, they just hire fewer black and Latino workers. The unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people is 27 percent.

A jobs guarantee would help reduce reincarceration, serve racial, economic, and environmental justice, and disrupt white supremacy — but only if it’s for everyone. That means everyone must be eligible, regardless of whether they’ve been arrested or convicted, served time or been supervised in the community, for a misdemeanor or a felony. This might seem obvious, but it must also be made explicit.

Education

A jobs guarantee, with appropriate measures to bolster unions and strengthen workers’ rights, would largely eliminate a major driver of mass incarceration. But, as the Green New Deal recognizes, a jobs guarantee also requires reinvestment in high-quality education.

On this front, the irrational priorities of what criminologist Jonathan Simon calls “governing through crime” are laid bare. Over the past thirty years, state and local spending on jails and prisons has increased at triple the rate of spending on P–12 public education. Over the same period, state and local appropriations for public colleges and universities remained flat, while funding for corrections increased by nearly 90 percent.

But “governing through crime” is about more than funding priorities. It’s also about mutating public institutions to internalize the logics and practices of the prison system.

A prime example is the influx of cops in schools. The police are now dealing with issues that were once handled internally by school authorities, with devastating effects: school-based arrests have skyrocketed 300–500 percent since the 1990s, making it more likely for many students to end up in the juvenile and criminal justice systems than receive a high-quality education. This criminalization is disproportionately directed at students of color and LGBTQ students. The number of New York City police officers stationed at public schools (over 5,000) makes this single unit of New York school cops one of the top ten largest police forces in the country.

A Green New Deal for Decarceration can reverse these priorities by redirecting public investment toward infrastructures like public education that actually enable people to survive, flourish, and take care of one another. This would be security worthy of the term.

Housing

Full-time work with livable wages, and the education needed for that work, are only one aspect of the kind of economic stability and financial autonomy that people need to feel secure and thrive. Green New Deal advocates have, for example, argued that housing policy is climate policy, and there have been calls for a bold program of social housing as part of the Green New Deal. But housing policy is also criminal justice policy.

Stable housing is a prerequisite for living a minimally ordinary life — maintaining employment, taking advantage of health and social services, enjoying decent physical and mental health. Yet people ensnared by the criminal justice system are systematically excluded from both private and public housing. (For people of color, this is often on top of the exclusion and discrimination they face from historically racist real estate markets and housing policies, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has shown.)

Private landlords can exclude people with criminal records from their buildings. And public housing authorities, invoking federal “one-strike” regulations, have denied millions of people with criminal records from public housing, either temporarily or permanently. These cruel and severe policies also prevent families from reunifying. Family members without criminal records risk their own eligibility for public housing if they welcome their loved ones back home from prison.

So it’s no surprise that housing insecurity increases the risk of reincarceration. Housing insecurity also exacerbates other problems faced by people as they get out of prison. People cycling through the criminal justice system are at higher risk for mental health problems, substance use problems, tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, sexual violence, and suicide. These problems require extensive and ongoing treatment and often not only stable, but supportive housing.

Supportive housing programs combine housing with services like mental health and substance use treatment and even vocational training, and have been shown to cost-effectively reduce reincarceration rates.

An ambitious Green New Deal for Housing can be a Green New Deal for Decarceration if it includes people affected by mass criminalization and mass incarceration and provides support for their specific needs. We need to responsibly remove eligibility restrictions on people with criminal records, and create adequate stock of supportive housing units.  As advocates for the Green New Deal connect the dots and form political coalitions with the housing justice movement, they should remember their allies in the public health, mental health, and substance use movements — they’re fighting the same political and economic forces.

Rural-Urban Investments and Alliances

Just as the Green New Deal movement has popularized the idea that the climate emergency and the economy are one and the same, the prison abolition movement has long shown that mass incarceration is fully intertwined with the systemic disinvestment endemic to capitalism.

As geographers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore point out, most prisoners come from a handful of urban neighborhoods in the nation’s major cities, and yet most new prisons are built in rural hinterlands. Both sets of spaces have suffered chronic disinvestment over four neoliberal decades of deindustrialization, deregulation, and economic austerity.

The result is what Gilmore calls “organized abandonment.” On the one hand, there are poor urban neighborhoods, often populated primarily by residents of color, with few jobs and crumbling transit, housing, and other infrastructure. On the other hand, there are poor, ecologically and economically devastated rural landscapes, first exploited then abandoned by industry.

Police flood poor urban neighborhoods with arrest quotas and quality-of-life ordinances, while prison boosters descend on poor rural towns promising jobs and prosperity via new correctional facilities on former farmland or industrial properties. At each end of the prison-industrial complex, fragile communities and delicate ecologies bear the brunt of an expanded carceral infrastructure, rather than investment, regeneration, and cultivation.

For rural communities, the economic benefits of this prison fix are fleeting — if they exist at all. Analyzing data from Indiana, New York, and Washington, political scientist Hannah Walker and colleagues found that warehousing urban prisoners in rural communities acts only temporarily as a “hidden subsidy.” In addition to creating a dependence on correctional jobs, the hidden subsidy comes from inflated population counts in otherwise shrinking areas, which increases the amount of state aid that host counties receive relative to their tax effort.

Meanwhile, this short-term economic payoff ultimately deters “alternative forms of development, instead fostering cycles of base subsistence and dependence on continued incarceration rates.” Poor rural communities are thus exploited as “expedient dumping grounds . . . for only limited, transitory economic relief.”

While the economic benefits of the prison boom in rural America may be temporary, the environmental harms of that growing carceral infrastructure may be more permanent. Letcher County isn’t the only rural community recently fighting prison construction on environmental grounds. In 2014, the Black Warrior Riverkeepers, a nonprofit organization in Alabama, successfully settled a lawsuit after finding that the Donaldson Correctional Facility had dumped 800,000 gallons of sewage into nearby creeks.

Ending mass incarceration requires new economic models to bring prosperity to both poor urban neighborhoods and poor rural communities. And that prosperity has to be green.

We’re already seeing some promising beginnings. Some Green New Deal activists and policymakers have put forward a vision of decarceration that acknowledges the human and environmental atrocities wrought by the prison system. For example, Queens councilperson Costa Constantinides has proposed converting Rikers Island into a solar farm that could store enough electricity to close virtually all of the city’s pollution-spewing secondary power plants, which are scattered throughout the five boroughs’ poor and working-class neighborhoods. And this is just from using one-quarter of Rikers Island to house solar panels.

Proponents of the Green New Deal have also begun to identify looming rural-urban struggles, like where to locate wind and solar farms, how to remake our agricultural and food systems, and the need to restore black land ownership. We suggest that the rural-urban coalitions required to democratically negotiate these struggles are the same as the alliances that must be forged to prevent the continued growth-logic of mass incarceration.

As capitalism leverages class antagonisms to thwart the transformations of our energy and agricultural systems, it also leverages mass incarceration to pit poor urban and poor rural communities against each other over the scraps of neoliberal investment. The Green New Deal could build on existing coalitions to integrate these struggles where they intersect, facilitating dialogue and building solidarity between “sending” and “receiving” communities, in both the environmental and carceral senses of those terms. The alternative is eco-apartheid.

Empowering Care Workers and Disempowering Police

So what do we do about actual harm, and the people who perpetrate it? And what does this have to do with climate change? A big part of the answer is reducing hyper-policing in vulnerable communities, providing real services for individual, interpersonal, and social flourishing, and empowering women, who are on the front lines of both climate change and decarceration activism. These measures are strikingly consistent with calls to put care work at the center of a no-carbon economy and society.

As we’ve suggested, connecting the Green New Deal to decarceration strategies presents an opportunity to rethink what it means for communities to be cared for and “safe.” This will become even more pressing as rising sea levels and extreme weather cause social instability and retreat from coastal regions. Will we replicate the violent and counterproductive status quo of racist and militarized policing under eco-apartheid?

Radically increasing transparency and community oversight, plus disarming the police of their military arsenals, are bare minimums for meaningful criminal justice reform, as hyper-policed communities have been advocating for years.

Over the past several decades, the role of police has increasingly grown to surveil communities in order to manage the consequences of the retreating welfare state. As a result, police are also often the first, and sometimes only, responders to the daily problems of living without adequate material resources, economic opportunities, and public investments, including mental health and substance use crises, homelessness, domestic violence, and school discipline infractions. Communities, especially those targeted by hyper-policing, know that police often make these situations worse, sometimes fatally.

In response, activists on the ground, like the organizations Project Nia, GenerationFIVE, and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence have developed their own comprehensive models of restorative and transformative justice in their communities. These strategies don’t rely on state systems of criminalization and persecution.

On the contrary, the lesson from these groups and the broader anti-violence movement generally is that police and prisons don’t decrease harm, they increase it. People facing domestic, gender-based, and/or sexual violence are often revictimized by the deployment of police as first responders. Victims of intimate partner violence often find themselves accused if not also arrested as part of police presence — and that’s if the police show up at all.

Hyper-policed communities have already clearly articulated their preferred alternative to police first response. As the title of a 2017 report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights puts it, public safety begins with public health. Across the country, communities suffering long-term disinvestment are demanding the reallocation of resources away from the police and toward public health, including well-paid and well-trained civilian crisis-response teams.

These public health–oriented first responders are equipped not with weapons, but with skills to de-escalate tense situations, provide rides to social services, mediate conflicts, and help people through mental health and substance use emergencies. Every one of these tools works better than guns.

Through targeted investments into working-class and racialized communities, a Green New Deal for Decarceration can make these reasonable and rational demands a reality. In the context of free and universal health care and focused local investments, which are already proposed in the Green New Deal, it is easy to imagine a world in which every neighborhood, and every new social housing development, has a state-of-the-art health clinic. Such clinics would include harm reduction supports like safe injection sites and needle exchanges, and also access to sexual and reproductive education and health care. These are hardly utopian demands — within a year or two of Green New Deal legislation passing, these services would yield enormous benefits in communities countrywide.

Such investments in living wages, stable housing, guaranteed basic income mechanisms, and other material resources would give women and gender-nonconforming people, especially, better options in the face of interpersonal violence, including intimate partner violence. The stakes are high.

Right now, women and gender-nonconforming people facing domestic violence find themselves with two usually awful choices: calling the police, or individual self-defense. Both have proven to result in criminalization and increased harm to the survivor as well as the perpetrator.

The recent case of Marissa Alexander, the African-American Florida woman who was initially sentenced to up to twenty years in jail after shooting at — and missing — her estranged husband as he threatened to harm her, is just one in a long litany of self-defense cases where abuse victims are persecuted after attempting to defend themselves.

There’s no reason a militarized police force whose central capacity and orientation is weaponized aggression, arrest, detention, and prosecution should be the front line of the state’s response to interpersonal violence, especially gender-based and domestic violence. When women are able to access affordable, safe, and adequate housing, they are less likely to stay in situations of domestic abuse. When women have greater financial autonomy, they have greater ability to leave abusers or access conditions for greater safety. And evidence from experiments with guaranteed minimum income demonstrate that alleviating social isolation and material deprivation can meaningfully lower rates of domestic abuse.

A feminist commitment to empowering communities, especially women in those communities, financially and socially, must be part of any Green New Deal for Decarceration.

Around the world, women are already leading the struggle against climate change, especially in what the Green New Deal calls front-line communities. Feminist social-help policies drive the deepest carbon emissions reductions, and greatest resiliency from extreme weather in the latest climate-science modeling. And feminist organizers make up the front lines of the prison abolition movement, where black women in particular are leading the struggle for a new society as the struggle for a decarcerated future. Feminism is for everybody, declared the author bell hooks, famously. Abolition too.

Ending Both Carbon and Carceral Dependence

Today’s anti-prison activists in Appalachia are building on a long history of coalition political struggles that brought anti-prison organizers together with environmental justice activists. Craig Gilmore and Rose Braz, for example, describe how in the early 2000s youth in California’s Central Valley pushed environmental justice activists and mainstream environmentalists to think expansively about what counts as “toxic” activity in their daily lives. They identified police, pollution, and prisons as the biggest threats in their communities. The Valley’s youth considered toxic threats from chemical sources akin to the toxic effects of hosting over half the state’s new mega-prisons.

Then, as now, we see anti-prison and environmental justice activism emerging in resistance to calamitous land-use practices that target poor communities and communities of color. Instead of health care, housing, jobs, education, and basic public health, rural communities and their urban counterparts are subjected to surveillance, behavioral micromanagement, and criminalization and incarceration.

The Green New Deal offers the opportunity to move away from a system that defines justice as punishment and fetishizes banishment and retribution as security strategies, and toward a system of transformative decarceration: fewer people, serving less time, in fewer cages. But also more people, living better and healthier lives, in expanded and improved social infrastructures.

We urge a transition not just to liberal formulations of restorative justice, which prioritize restitution between individuals, but also a structural restorative justice among people, institutions, and society. Not just restorative justice, in other words, but redistributive justice. And we suggest that redistributive justice is and can be ecological and economic justice, too; a justice that fits squarely into the objectives and ambitions of the Green New Deal.

Mass criminalization and mass incarceration exploit our fears in order to extract people from their social ecosystems, in the process destroying communities and the networks of care and support required to lead productive, healthy lives. Yes, we need a Green New Deal to save the planet. We also need a Green New Deal for Decarceration to support and nourish the stewards of this planet — that’s us.

End Mark

About the Author

Brett Story is an assistant professor at Ryerson University and a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on the carceral geographies. She is the director of the film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, and the author of Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power Across Neoliberal America (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

Seth J. Prins is an assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. He studies the collateral consequences of mass incarceration for public health, and how the division and structure of labor influence depression, anxiety, and substance use.

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