words by molly lipson
artwork by Nico Krijno
For The Frontline, two prison abolitionists discuss the environmental harm of prisons and one idea for Rikers Island in New York City.
Most climate movements target fossil fuel companies, banks, and governments. But there’s another set of institutions, systems, and structures that one grassroots movement, in particular, is focusing on: prisons.
Fight Toxic Prisons works at the intersection of environmental justice and prison abolition, a worldview that seeks to dismantle all forms of incarceration by getting rid of police, immigration detention centers, juvenile detention, and other similar structures.
Abolitionists aim to reduce and prevent harm before it happens rather than wait for the harm and punish an individual afterward. Alongside individual harm, they also focus on systemic harms caused by corporations, governments, and structures that lead to marginalization and oppression. For abolitionists, policing and incarceration cause harm, not solve it. This ideological underpinning also means that abolitionists want to dismantle racial capitalism, the exploitation of Black and Brown people to create profit for the predominantly white, wealthy people at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy.
Fight Toxic Prison’s intersectional approach is an obvious one: Black, Indigenous, Latine, Muslim, queer, disabled, and other marginalized folks are overrepresented at every level of the criminal legal system. These same communities are first and worst impacted by the climate crisis, both in its causes and its consequences, despite being least responsible for it.
Prisons carry physical environmental impacts: they emit toxic chemicals, pollute nearby air and water, and often sit on or near toxic waste. Even where other buildings would not be considered, states welcome prisons because they don’t value the health and well-being of people who are incarcerated or the communities nearby.
“During the prison boom [from 1970 to 2000], prisons were more likely to be built in densely populated towns with prior proximate prison with a higher than average percentages of poverty, Black [people] and Hispanic [people],” reads a 2010 paper on prison locations.
Nowhere exemplifies this more than the Rikers Island jail in New York City. With an average daily population of over 5,500, most of whom are still awaiting trial, Rikers has become globally known for its extreme violence and brutality. Lesser known are the jail’s environmental implications.
Rikers Island, on which the jail sits, is made of landfill, much of which is coal ash, a byproduct of coal mining that is full of harmful toxins. Moored in the East River, Rikers sits in a bay in between Queens and the South Bronx near neighborhoods predominantly home to Black and Latine families who already face pollution from nearby noxious power plants and old wastewater treatment plants. One Bronx neighborhood that overlooks Rikers has been named Asthma Alley for its incredibly high rates of air pollution; its population is 96% Latine and Black.
A decades-long courageous battle by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, their families, loved ones, activists, legislators, and allies led to a groundbreaking piece of legislation in 2019 slating Rikers for closure by 2027. This is a tremendous success for those who had fought for so long, but it left one crucial question unanswered: what to do with the land that remained?
An answer emerged as all great answers do—collaboratively among the communities most impacted. The proposed project, named Renewable Rikers, hopes to see cages replaced with green energy sources and barbed wire pulled out to make way for safe waste facilities.
At the moment, this is only an idea. The law doesn’t lay out a specific plan for Rikers, only that in closing it, the state would open four borough-based jails. In other words, the plan to close Rikers is also a plan to build new jails in New York City. So far, plans to close the jail have been constantly delayed, leading even the city’s mayoral administration to question whether the plans will be complete by 2027. Campaigners have been urging the city to act faster and adhere to its own timeline.
Still, the vision put forth in Renewable Rikers allows New Yorkers to reimagine what’s possible. The plan takes much of Fight Toxic Prison’s theory and puts it into practice. Below, Andrea Johnson, the architect for Renewable Rikers, speaks with Jordan Martinez-Mazurek from Fight Toxic Prisons about the similarities and tensions between the sustainable landscape design industry and grassroots abolition organizing.
How does the project’s environmental justice scope interface with the design side of things? What’s been your experience working with the local community to really get that going?
Rikers is situated at the nexus of all of this noxious infrastructure, so the plan has three major proposals in terms of green infrastructure. There are four peaker power plants, which are activated at times of peak energy usage, within a mile-and-a-half radius of the island. They emit highly toxic gases. Because Rikers Island is over 400 acres, it really offers an opportunity to develop energy storage to contribute to phasing out those plants. The Peak Coalition has been organizing for many years to close these plants, and some of the organizations in our coalition also belong to that as well. These campaigns have intersecting ambitions.
There are also three wastewater treatment plants that surround the island and contribute to disproportionate combined sewer overflows in the East River. Part of Renewable Riker’s goal is to consolidate these into one larger plant on the island. The last infrastructure proposal is composting and organic waste processing. Rikers sits at the confluence of three marine waste transfer stations. We’re not advocating for those stations to be closed but, rather, that they be leveraged to barge over organic waste to Rikers where we could construct a facility capable of processing up to a third of New York City’s organic waste. A main focus of the plan is advocating that this new infrastructure benefit communities that have been impacted by incarceration and by this noxious infrastructure.
As Rikers is built on a landfill, I wonder if your campaign has targeted landfill sites that actively house prisons.
“Yes, we can build this, but is it moral?”
We haven’t launched campaigns to shut down existing prisons and jails built on landfills, but we have so far managed to prevent $4.6 billion worth of new prison construction in Appalachia alone. And here’s the thing: it’s a lot easier to stop new construction of prisons than it is to shut down existing ones. However, we know that about a third of sites deemed highly contaminated by the Environmental Protection Agency—what they call Superfund sites—have a jail, prison, or detention center within 5 kilometers of them. Part of what we do is amplify the voices of incarcerated people who are talking about the real, visceral experience of living with all the environmental toxins that come from these sites.
How does coalition-building help reconceptualize land use in these rural areas where there are not a lot of employment options?
Part of what we’ve done in a number of these coalition spaces over the years is, one, really question the underlying assumption that prison and jail construction is good for the economy. A study by professors from Appalachian State University looked at the economic impact of new prison and jail construction on local communities in Appalachia. Although hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on these projects, they found that prisons aren’t driving economic growth there.
What we want is to reappropriate the money to the things that we know communities need. In our original campaign to stop the construction of a prison in Kentucky’s Letcher County, community members asked local folks what else they would do with the $444 million the government was spending on the prison. People spoke about investing in small business grant infrastructure, reclaiming coal ash dumps and mountaintop removal sites, creating jobs, and improving farming.
Originally, our movement work focused a lot on trying to shut prisons down, but now we’re working on building coalitions that are capable of looking at what we could build, as well.
Now, a question for you. In terms of the work y’all have been doing around Rikers, I’m curious how you’ve experienced dealing with the city and any folks who are a part of the carceral administration. I noticed, for example, that the committee responsible for advancing recommendations for Rikers missed three of its four annual meetings that were mandated in 2022.
I think there’s some momentum that’s continuing—and some that’s being stilted, as well. They’re moving ahead with the part of the plan to close Rikers that will see four borough-based jails constructed to replace the Rikers Island jail. The city is required to provide more humane conditions and situate the facilities closer to people’s families. But the city is also required to decrease the current number of people who are incarcerated on Rikers, which has stalled.
There are more promising steps with the feasibility studies regarding the plans for the island once the jail has been closed that look at the wastewater treatment plants and the renewable energy proposals. I’m not personally engaging with the city on those matters. I’ve been more behind the scenes working on the design, but Freedom Agenda is one of the main organizations doing lots of advocacy and holding the city to account.
If I might offer a sort of small critique—and this is a broad critique of the climate movement—there’s often a large reliance on active cooperation with the state or attempts via traditional advocacy pathways to achieve change, whether it be lobbying city council or getting on to city committees. And we often see the state promising that it’s going to do all kinds of wonderful things, particularly liberal states, in terms of reform.
There’s this idea that James Kilgore, a formerly incarcerated author, has called carceral humanism, which means that we think if we just make nicer prisons and jails and more humane cages, that’ll solve our problems. In reality, these “reformed” prisons don’t actually reduce mass incarceration. Governments just build the new cages with a higher bed capacity, and then they overfill them. What was designed as a “nicer” human cage—more windows, more light, etc.—doesn’t matter when these prisons end up being overpopulated just like in other prisons. Also, they’re still prisons.
We see the carceral state using the language of environmental justice, so we’re heavily critical of New York City’s Closing Rikers Island plan because, to us, that’s not a solution. It’s punting the problem down the road and wrapping it in a nice bow while actually building an institution closer to our communities that we know are going to lock up our kids and our grandkids and their kids in the same horrible conditions run by the same departments that are causing so much harm in the first place.
I completely agree with you. I wasn’t involved in the campaign prior to joining the design phase, but advocates are trying to ensure that there’s a lot of investment in other services to prevent the need for incarceration. But yes, I completely agree with the critique and know that there are a lot of organizations in New York City that are far more abolitionist.
“We want to get rid of all prisons, so does that mean we don’t work on getting air conditioning in the prisons now? No.”
In the broader architecture and design world, we see a lot of harm occurring through the building of new prisons, jails, and detention centers without any apparent resistance. It doesn’t seem like anyone is saying, Yes, we can build this, but is it moral? I’m curious about your own experience working within that broader landscape and whether you’re familiar with any work going on internally to address those political dynamics.
Yes, there’s a lot of continued rhetoric in terms of promoting sustainability and the green agenda without considering underlying root issues of injustice, and that definitely permeates the field of design. Looking at work that’s been done around greening programs and horticulture programs within jails, there’s a lot of scholarship in this area that, although these programs can benefit people who are incarcerated, they can also perpetuate incarceration. There’s someone on the Renewable Rikers coalition who participated in the horticulture program at Rikers and individually benefited. It raises an important contention in both addressing the current conditions of people who are incarcerated and, at the same time, advocating for abolition. There’s not a neat way to approach that work, and it’s very nuanced and complex.
How can you contribute to supporting incarcerated people having agency and more autonomy in a space where their autonomy is completely restricted while also being highly critical of the narratives these prisons are promoting?
Yes, I entirely agree with that. We have a lot of those types of conversations within our organization and the broader movement space. We talk about having a responsibility and a moral obligation to stop this harm from happening to future generations but also to stop the current harm happening to people inside and actually helping ensure that their lives are a little bit easier. We see this in Texas and many other states across the South. There is no air conditioning in 80% of Texas prisons. And let me tell you, as somebody from Texas, it gets hot down here!
So we’re faced with the dilemma of, Well, we want to get rid of all prisons, so does that mean we don’t work on getting air conditioning in the prisons now? No. It means we fight to get air conditioning for the folks inside who are dying of heatstroke, and we fight the underlying system by saying, Hey, instead of giving the Texas Department of Corrections another $5 million to build more air conditioning, how about we use that money to close a couple of prisons instead?
When we interrogate these kinds of conflicts, we tend to use the language of, Is this a reformist reform or a non-reformist reform? What we mean by that is, Is this a reform that’s just growing the capacity of the carceral system—a reformist reform—or is it shrinking the prison-industrial complex’s capacity while also meeting people’s needs who are inside—a non-reformist reform? I think you’re entirely correct on how these types of programs are being used as a narrative to justify incarceration. So yes, I very much appreciate that tension.
What’s the difference between harm and crime, and how does that distinction relate to your work?
I think about this distinction a lot. There are a vast number of harms that occur—especially by the state, corporations, and environmental pollution—that are not thought of as crimes. When I speak with rural communities in areas where a new prison is being built or planned, the discussion focuses on this distinction, and we look at what type of harm folks are afraid of. Often, it’s physical harm and violence. They’re not necessarily as afraid of the carcinogens leaking into their water supply as a result of the prison construction, for example.
Within all of our studies in criminology, even the more traditional ones, we see that prisons do not rehabilitate people. That’s a collective fiction. Actually, when you go into prison, you experience a much greater degree of violence and harm than you did outside because the conditions are so barbaric, especially in the U.S. prison system. And if we see traumatized people going into a system that only re-traumatizes them, of course, people are going to commit further harm inside or when they come out. The entire system is built to make folks inside fail and give them no other options. There’s a good study on how many Black people with felony histories get called back after job interviews—it’s 5%.
I think this discussion needs us to move from the very immediate and visceral fear of violent crime befalling a person and their family to understanding the structural violence of the system in place and how it actually recreates and reproduces and amplifies that very physical violence they’re so afraid of.
I’m very curious as to what the processes looked like when you were working within the community to create the plan around the new site at Rikers.
The coalition has been engaged with this for years, especially Freedom Agenda. Many of their key members have been incarcerated, so they’ve been convening folks and having ongoing conversations about the need to present a cohesive vision. When I came to the table, they already had an idea of the uses community members were recommending, but I think continued organizing at many levels is going to be needed.
For example, the coalition wants the island to remain under city ownership, rather than become privately owned, but the way energy systems are currently structured, that isn’t possible. There are organizing efforts to nationalize power so that the state would be able to build renewables. Oftentimes with city planning, there’s not that much community input. There’s certainly no creative platform for people to actually think about how they envision a future for themselves in the city. So I think that the agency and momentum with Renewable Rikers have really been grounded in these grassroots groups, and it’s been a lot of labor.
It’s important that more New Yorkers join the campaign because so much continued activism is required at every single step.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.