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Abolitionist Environmentalism? Querying the Power of Itemizing the Environmental Injustices of Mass Incarceration

Nick Shapiro et al.


At the heart of North America’s environmental and carceral injustices are significant accountability shortcomings. These problems converge not just in the hyper-policing of communities of color and the minimal policing and enforcement of the large scale endangerments of environmental pollution, but in the environmental toxicity of prisons themselves. This presentation details the first national study of the environmental violations of all of the almost seven thousand carceral facilities in the US. The findings indicate that the infrastructures charged by the american criminal justice system to be the infrastructures of accountability and repair suffer from massive environmental accountability problems. Our study indicates thousands of environmental violations of carceral facilities across the US, many of which were unknown to the US EPA. While advancing this new data, the presentation further details the potential shortcomings of this method. We will discuss the history of how conditions-focused lawsuits (including environmental conditions) that sought accountability and systems-change in court often enhanced the state’s carceral capacities by leading to hiring more guards, increasing prisoner surveillance, and most importantly, building more prisons. In our practice we ask: what role if any does the leveraging of quantitative environmental health data have in curtailing the flow of people into prison or expanding avenues for early release?

Evidence of systematic toxic exposures often yields, if anything beyond dismissal, a reformist response. Assertions that there is “too much” of a toxic chemical routinely animate the goldilocks-esque work of finding just the “right” level of exposure. From toxics regulation, to waste management, biodiversity loss, and climate change mitigation, responses to evidence of environmental hazards often orient towards minimizing costs and interruptions to the industries, infrastructures, and regulatory agencies that are differently responsible for the exposure. These technocratic reactions to toxicity that treat environmentalist concerns as efficiency problems ripe for non-disruptive “solutions” seek to reinforce a magnitude of exposure—and thus injury—that is just bearable enough. In this way, identifying environmental problems, however well-meaning, has tended more towards enhancing the resilience of the larger relations that produce the issue(s) than imagining and working to realize alternative processes that make “necessary evils” unnecessary.

It is difficult to think of a thread of critical thought and action farther from the reformist tinkering of mainstream environmentalism than prison abolition, which advances alternatives to imprisonment, surveillance, policing, and survivor support that demand radically rethinking social orders. Abolitionists note that the prison, much like the material agents of environmental harm, needs to be decentered to better render paths towards decarceration. Environmental health advocates and scientists, on the other hand, often hold banning specific chemicals or classes of chemicals–taken as isolated agents rather than the set of relations that produce them at industrial scales–as a holy grail of detoxification. While it is clear that environmental health researchers have much to learn from prison abolitionists, what—if anything—can environmental research lend to debates about whether to advance prison reform or prison abolition?


Nicholas Shapiro is an Assistant Professor in the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics. He is a multidisciplinary environmental researcher that studies, and designs interventions into, issues of chemical contamination and climate change. He has worked tracking the quasi-legal resale of 120,000+ chemically contaminated housing units after Hurricane Katrina, developing air monitoring systems with communities impacted by unconventional natural gas extraction, and testing fossil fuel-free means of long distance air travel.