Say “criminal justice” and very few people think of the environment. But in reality, there’s a complicated relationship between the work of environmentalists, who are trying to encourage a more responsible attitude toward our planet and everything on it, and those moving in and out of the prison-industrial complex, who are fighting for a little space in this world and struggling to survive in severely under-resourced communities. These days, rural prisons provide the only experience many urban youth have with a non-urban environment.
The Brooklyn-based Prison Moratorium Project is one organization starting to think about how best to integrate these two seemingly disparate issues. The idea of a prison moratorium came about in response to the jail-building boom of the 1970s; PMP itself was founded in 1995 by Eddie Ellis, Raybblin Vargas, and Kevin Pranis. Since then, the organization has been working with young people who have been in a juvenile detention center or jail, and with the communities those youth call home. As a key player in the Justice 4 Youth Coalition, PMP is largely credited with the 2002 victory that stopped $64.6 million from being spent on new youth jails in New York City.
Recently, the PMP team launched a 12-week intensive internship program called PMP Academy, where eight young people ages 18 to 23 who have been through the juvenile-justice system receive political education and skills training. Adrienne Maree Brown recently sat down with Khaleaph Luis, who created and implemented the academy, and Prince Serna, who handles PMP’s design and technology needs, to talk about their work and its connection to environmentalism.
What kind of environment do most of your constituents live in?
Luis: Most of our young folk are dropping out of high school. They’re in underdeveloped communities — liquor store on every corner, bodega, maybe a community center they don’t know about. So our average youth lives in the concrete jungle, in projects. These are mini-jails with police-type headquarters in the projects, detention centers in the projects, police on every block. So when a young person comes outside, immediately they see police patrolling their block, especially through federally funded programs that put fresh-out-of-the-academy police on the block who have no cultural training. Metal detectors, bag searches — this is how we frame the school-to-prison pipeline.
The school-to-prison pipeline?
Luis: The school-to-prison pipeline is the direct relationship between school and prison — the disinvestment from schools coinciding with the investment in juvenile detention centers and the prison-industrial complex. You have a high-school dropout rate of 33 percent in New York City — 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds who are literally in the street. You have a 50 percent unemployment rate [for those youth]. There’s a direct relationship between young people being in prison and not having a diploma or a job.
And the environment in prisons?
Serna: You know, I was incarcerated. I spent four years upstate. They would use the outside against us; it’s all about privileges. They would remove the privilege of going outside. When I went up, there were riots going on all the time — there was so much tension, so they were locking things up much more. So the majority of time is spent in your room or the common room. Everything’s gated. You could see into the parking lot. Your cell is a bed, a cubbyhole, a desk, closet, door.
How would you compare your home environment versus the prison environment?
Serna: My neighborhood was considered an industrial park, a lot more so during that time. Now it’s become more vibrant, a lot more trees, the neighborhoods are strong. When I went upstate [to prison], looking out through your window, technically it was gorgeous, ’cause it was more green than down here [in New York City]. In that sense, there was beauty. If you look at the new detention centers, they’re gorgeous compared to some of the high schools. It doesn’t mean that they’re better; it’s a forced environment. For some reason, even when you’re outside, it feels gray when you’re behind the gates.
Image: Prince Serna.
In your artwork for PMP, the world where young people are imprisoned looks like a nuclear wasteland, like the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe. Is that intentional?
Serna: It is intentional. When you’re in prison, on the other side of the gate everything looks beautiful and warm, while on the prison side everything stays dark.
Did being in prison affect your views on the environment? Where do you see environmental justice fitting into your personal life and in PMP’s work?
Serna: I always talk to people like: environment is like self. I do it through self-knowledge. I eat organic food as much as possible and try to educate on that as much as I can. I build on, “What does it mean to be a vegetarian?” With our PMP constituents, I ask — like when I see them eating McDonald’s — I say, “Do you know where that comes from?” Not even where the meat was constructed, but the workers in that place. Basically, I just get at whatever they’re dealing with at the time.
Luis: Yeah, I’m still coming to understand it for our academy. I come from the concrete jungle myself. Seeing natural environments, for me, is rare. It takes me a while to feel like I can be a part of it. I’m from the Caribbean. I went back a month ago and in my uncle’s yard he has coconut trees, mango trees — it amazes me to this day that I can go outside and drink water, eat the coconut. No matter how many degrees I get, I’m still in awe of that, humbled by that process. Our young people, on their route, they barely even see a tree. If they do, it’s planted on the block, ends up dying every year — the tree almost looks out of place. Most of us go to the grocery store and get our meat in slices, don’t know where any of the produce comes from. Does broccoli grow in a tree, underground? Tomatoes, where are they from? We have no direct connection to anything we eat.
The usual suggestion for how to bring more nature into urban youths’ lives is to take them to that environment, but I wonder if that doesn’t just perpetuate a dynamic of nature as something to visit, something that belongs to someone else. How would you suggest increasing the exposure to nature for your constituents — by greening jails?
Serna: I think that’s something that should be done, but it’s a Band-Aid. It’s a good idea, but it can’t be the only solution.
Luis: Yeah, I think of when I visit my parents who live in more natural environments — it’s like time slows down, I can take a deep breath, walk, it’s like a different world. I almost feel at peace. So right off the bat I think that [greening jails] is a great idea. But it depends on how you do it. Early on, they used to do convict leasing — using prison labor to work farms. Basically [the prisoners] were slaves. They would grow crops, till the land, not get paid. They were an isolated community being exploited to produce crops to profit …
The white man?
Luis: You got that. It shouldn’t be done like that. And if you’re gonna green the jail, remember: it’s still a jail. It’s still an isolated space with no freedom. A few trees, some plants in the cell, it’s a start. But if you’re really trying to transform someone and get rid of these things you deem crimes, isolation is not the key. Imagine 23 hours in a small room and how that plays on your psyche, your body — not being able to walk more than five or six steps in any direction. Outside isn’t outside, it’s a caged concrete basketball court. That’s your reality. When you’re exploring transformation, you have to explore what it means not to be isolated, what it means to reintegrate someone back into the community. The recidivism rate goes down for prisoners who experience a community. There needs to be a constant relationship between the prisoner and the community they’re from.
Yeah, you’ve mentioned that friends and family should be considered part of the PMP constituency.
Luis: Especially when you’re talking about environmental justice, your environment includes your constant surroundings: your home, school, the street, places where you spend your time. It’s important that you connect with young people through all of those, because they are whole people.
Other than greening jails, what are other ways to increase exposure to nature for your constituency?
Luis: Part of the [PMP] academy is taking people upstate for retreats. Some young people never leave their neighborhood. They know nothing outside that, other than the relationship to TV; that’s their world. We show them there’s more than just concrete.
But doesn’t that continue the idea that nature belongs to white folk or rich folk, if you have to go out of your world to see it?
Luis: Always going to other people’s communities is not the answer. We have to have our own. But some of the environments we live in have been set up not to be healthy environments. To produce something out of nothing is very difficult. We’ve been forced into places that have little to nothing. If you look at indigenous folk in this country, they were forced onto land where you can basically grow nothing. The soil can’t produce anything conducive to living off of. It’s the worst land in North America. We’re forced to do what my mother did — with very little, she fed our family, gave us something that sustained us.
How about the long-term effects of not being around nature? Does that contribute to the higher prison rates for urban youth?
Serna: Yeah, I actually think it does. We pretty much live on top of each other, especially in the projects. One of the best examples is in Brooklyn: projects right across from each other can’t stand each other. They become little countries.
But even in the face of that kind of animosity and the crime that can result, the mission of PMP is to stop building prisons, right?
Luis: To build a future beyond prisons is our catchphrase — to create an alternative to the default of prisons.
So what will you do with all the criminals?
Luis: What is a criminal? Your language shapes the conversation.
Of course you don’t immediately let everyone out [of jail]. People are doing these long bids and coming back to the communities they left, underdeveloped communities. If we don’t address the root problems, then you’re right, what do we do? The system makes youth disappear so we can feel secure. It punishes them for things we could do.
What are some of the alternatives to prisons as you see it?
Luis: Any conversation on alternatives is just the start of many conversations that need to be had. We have to address why young people are being locked up. We have to have real conversations about it — about why young people are there in the first place. And we have to understand who we are. It sounds so cliché to say “let’s talk,” but really that’s the first step. We’re constantly being attacked and defending ourselves, so we don’t have time to develop that self-determination.
Yeah, and that resentment builds up. Then on top of that, I think there’s resentment from those who work with oppressed human populations when approached by environmentalists. It’s like, extinction is an issue when its owls, but what about when it’s your sister, lover, father? How would you suggest addressing that resentment?
Luis: This goes back to knowledge of self. Original people — black people — you can never be extinct. This world cannot exist if you don’t exist. You are the universe. We are dying, we are being imprisoned in alarming numbers. But if you know who you are, you will have a direct relationship to the environment. The stars, the flowers: all of that is you. The periodic table: that’s all you. The atom, nature: you are a part of all that. To not care about nature is to not care about yourself. In destroying yourself, you’re destroying nature. It’s one and the same.