I’ve been working with formerly incarcerated people in the shadow of the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, since I was released from the local jail system in 2009. I was kept in a cage facing a 10-year sentence, deprived of my right to connect with nature, and fed substandard food. When I returned home, I found my community struggling with homelessness, health issues, and incarceration, all while Chevron pumped toxic gas into the air, oil into the Bay, and dirty money into our political system. I’ve seen Chevron try to buy our elections for millions of dollars and try to spread the narrative that politicians interested in environmental justice reform are shutting down jobs for working people.
In Richmond and beyond, enemies of the environmental justice movement are building a false choice between environmental protections and jobs, even as my community of formerly incarcerated folks struggles with employment discrimination and public housing options built on landfills. For my community, the link between the criminal “justice” system and environmental injustice is clear as day, as is the need to include incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in the movement for environmental justice. Like Chevron and other fossil fuel giants, the prison-industrial complex is an extractive industry that profits from unsustainability and human suffering.
About 250 miles away, in Susanville, a Northern California town, residents are grappling with similar environmental justice and incarceration questions. In 2021, residents learned that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2021-22 budget included the closure of the California Correctional Center. The CCC, a prison established in 1963, incarcerated more than 2,000 people and employed 13.5% of the town. And as news of the prison closure hit, residents said it would “devastate the whole community,” with some guessing that Gov. Newsom was punishing the primarily Republican town. What, asked residents, would happen to a local economy that depended on incarceration to keep running? And what, as progressive advocates have discussed, about the primarily Black and Latinx people incarcerated in Susanville, who are routinely denied access to dignified work and political representation?
If policymakers take action, the answer to all these questions can be found in Just Transition. As early as the 1970s, labor unions and environmental justice organizations have been advocating for a visionary shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy and a regenerative economy. Just Transition proposes that frontline residents, workers, and impacted groups have the power to co-develop worker protections, environmental clean-up, and economic structures that lead to an economy of horizontal cooperation rather than top-down extraction by the 1%.
Just Transition is a framework for how to respond to industries that harm the environment in ways that primarily affect communities of color. Incarcerated people live, eat, and work in cages, denied the human right of access to the natural world. The food incarcerated people eat often fails basic standards of nutrition. And prisons are both polluted and polluters. Across the U.S., nearly 600 prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund site—locations that require long-term cleanup of hazardous contaminants—and prisons are often built in the remnants of landfills or mines. While there is no nationwide system to track the air or water quality available to incarcerated people, in the last five years, there have been 92 informal and 51 formal actions against prisons, detention centers, and jails under the Clean Air Act (CAA). And these violations are, in all probability, only the tip of the melting iceberg.
Incarcerated people are also often on the front lines of climate change, as in the example of incarcerated people fighting wildfires in California in 2020. In those 2020 wildfires, incarcerated people in Vacaville, California, were not evacuated, even as residents of surrounding neighborhoods fled high levels of smoke. There have already been cases in California where rising temperatures associated with climate change increased the risk of valley fever, a life-threatening lung disease caused by breathing in fungus-laced dust.
The Just Transition framework can and should be extended to the issues of incarceration. Other writers have described in detail how a Green New Deal could include necessary decarceration and how providing green jobs could be tailored to serve formerly incarcerated people. Meanwhile, in Susanville, incarcerated people have been falsely pitted against those who are employed in the carceral system. While those who support the prison in Susanville have much more choice than those incarcerated within it, everyone caught in extractive systems deserves to transition out of them in ways that are dignified, healthy, and full of freedom. Robust education and retraining programs, a jobs guarantee, and supportive housing programs don’t need to be extended solely to either prisons or prisoners.
As a woman who has “re-entered” the world outside prison, I don’t want to be released into a prison town. I don’t want to return to a system built on my suffering. And serious, state- and nation-wide investment in Just Transition now is the only way forward as the U.S. grapples with the related challenges of climate change and mass incarceration. We’ve been fed a narrative of scarcity, of slavery, a culture of captivity, but when we step back, we can see that we also have frameworks to build something new. There are more of us than our enemies, and we must build narratives that include us all. The dystopian future is already here, and the way to meet it is with a renewed and rigorous commitment to the dignity and interconnectedness of human beings, in and out of the systems that challenge it.