What does it look like to be an environmentalist in prison?
by Panagioti Tsolkas
[UPDATED 5/10/16. Also, for more on prisons and the environment, check out “Incarceration, Justice and the Planet: How the Fight Against Toxic Prisons Could Shape the Future of Environmentalism“]]
In the fall of 2015 the Prison Ecology Project (PEP) received an anonymous letter from a prisoner at the federal prison in Dublin, California explaining how the extreme over-use of rat poison was killing wildlife all around the prison and putting prisoners at risk of exposure to the toxic substance. Communications with the group Californians for Alternatives to Toxics confirmed that they have found the overuse of both pesticides and herbicides to be a common practice at prisons across the state.
After discussing this issue with other environmentalists in the region around the prison, which is just east of the San Francisco Bay Area, PEP found that the Dublin prison was already on the radar for some because, at the time, it was the residency of a well-known eco-activist, Rebecca Rubin, who was sentenced to seven years for underground actions against genetic engineering in the late ‘90s. Rubin was released earlier this month.
The reality of environmentalists in prison moved from the fringes to mainstream with the sentencing of Tim DeChristopher for his infamous interference as “Bidder 70” in a Utah oil and gas auction which paved the way for the first tar sands operation in the country. While his action could be viewed as sabotage-lite in comparison to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) arsons that Rubin was implicated in, the federal government’s response would put them into similar categories.
As a result of cases like that of DeChristopher and Rubin, the contemporary environmental movement gained some first-hand experiences of its own with prison life. Like the labor movement at the turn of the century and the civil rights movement 50 years later, the environmental movement was getting a glimpse of how our government often deals with dissent. We also got a closer look at how toxic the prison system could be for prisoners and surrounding communities—what the Human Rights Defense Center coined as prison ecology.
Along with Rubin, several other activists also became environmental prisoners as a result of ELF actions in the Pacific Northwest during the ‘90s. Daniel McGowan, for example, served time in a federal prison located on a notorious military Superfund site adjacent to the Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge in Illinois. The prison, known as Marion, was also home to a Communication Management Unit, where Daniel was housed due to his political activism. McGowan was accused of domestic terrorism, though no one was physically injured by his actions. His story was featured in an Oscar-nominated 2011 documentary film If a Tree Falls.
Another former eco-prisoner, Eric McDavid, who was accused of plotting attacks on the Nimbus dam and cell phone towers (spurred on by an FBI provocateur) ended up doing time in Victorville FCI, a federal prison built on a military Superfund site. While the most severe of his charges were eventually thrown out in 2015 due to evidence being wrongly suppressed by the prosecution, he had already spent ten years in the pen… much of it on contaminated soil.
Additionally, there’s Marius Mason, a transgender prisoner at the federal women’s prison near Fort Worth, Texas on the Carswell military base. Carswell is home to at least two superfund sites within a mile of the prison. One is a 760-acre plant that has manufactured military planes since 1942 resulting in soil and water contaminated with hazardous chemicals. The U.S. Air Force currently owns the facility; Lockheed Martin Corporation operates it. The other is located at “Building 1215.” The EPA considers this to be an active site, with contamination continuing to impact the area. Mason is serving a 22-year sentence for his underground actions against logging and genetic engineering, again in which no one was injured. Carswell was also home to other prominent political prisoners, including anti-nuke activist Helen Woodson and activist-lawyer Lynne Stewart, both of whom were released in recent years.
More recently, hacker activist Jeremy Hammond was incarcerated for releasing information from security firm StratFor on their surveillance of environmental groups, among others. For this he was sentenced to 10 years in the Appalachian coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, in a federal prison called FCI Manchester.
In a March 2016 letter to the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons (a group fighting a proposed prison on a mountaintop removal coal mine site in Letcher County, KY), Hammond wrote: “They say [FCI Manchester] was also a former coal strip mine site…and has two Superfund sites.”
He continued, “I wish there was a way to get the water tested. The medical here is terrible—basically you got nothing coming unless it’s life-threatening.”
The following are excerpts from McDavid, McGowan and Peg Millett (of the Arizona 5 case in 1989) reflecting on their incarceration, and specifically, what it looked like to be an environmentalist behind bars.
From Eric McDavid
“It felt like there was a lot for me to share with other folks, and to surprisingly find my ideas well accepted…. There was that cultural shift of people trying to find healthier ways of being in their bodies and in their environment, so I was utilized as a source of information and ideas of different ways of eating and being healthy. Everybody in there appreciated nature and knew how fucked up it was to be held in prisons built on superfund sites, drinking water laden in heavy metals, breathing in toxic dust and forced to consume GMO saturated foods. There was the points of connection around just wanting to be outside, no longer held in the cells and buildings which were so tangibly oppressive. The classic part was that being out on the rec yard is one of the most dangerous places to be—where there was the highest chance of a fight spreading into a riot, where it was so wide open that it was a challenge to get your back up against a wall and have a fight come at you from only the front and flanks.”
On connections to nature
“My connection to nature played a huge role in being able to maintain my heart and mind while in custody. While in Sacramento county [jail], those four 4″ X 70″ plates of plexiglass and the fencing of the rec-yard were like windows back into the real world for me. To watch the crows and other winged friends fly by, the people walking on the street, the Sun light, clouds, wind and rain, they were all a constant reminder of what I was doing and why. While at the Victorville Medium II facility I was forced to take solace in the quiet of the high desert. It’s sage covered landscapes and distant mountains with varying hews of browns and greys, the powerful winds of Winter (so strong I could smell the snow on the mountains they just gusted over to try and cut through to my bones); and the stark heat of Summer which dried the air and everything in it, scorching stone, sand and skin alike; and feeling the downpours of the August monsoons soak and rinse me to the core. Then to the low security at terminal island, which sticks out into the port of Long Beach, where there is a dog run on the way to the rec. yard that is about fifteen feet to the water’s edge. The first time I heard the waves on the rocks from a passing boat a stone’s toss away I nearly jumped out of my skin. The sounds of gulls, the sight of storm swells breaching the distant barrier wall, the fog rolling in so thick I couldn’t see 25 feet away, and the brisk Winter mornings to walk around the track as the sun slowly rose. All these things kept me close to myself, close to who I am…”
On Superfund sites
“There was wide knowledge of the fact that we were being held on a superfund site at Victorville. Just across from the prison was ample evidence in the dilapidated military housing that stood vacant and in eye-shot of the rec-yard. People knew the water was contaminated and that the air was full of toxic particles swept up by the perpetual winds that tore over the surrounding mountains. There was constant talk about it without any effort to find ways of addressing it, I think because folks were so wrapped up in dealing with the stresses that came from dealing with their cases and doing their time in such an oppressive environment.”
“As an environmentalist in Prison, It felt very strange; alone. There was only one person who was REALLY interested in understanding. In the first week there, I was approached by the lady Chaplin, who, when she heard that I like to sing, invited me to sing at the Gospel Fest that weekend. I sang after the First Institutional Baptist Church Choir. I introduced the song as written for a documentary on Rape by a radical Lesbian from Canada. You coulda heard a pin drop. I sang “Testimony” by Ferron. When I finished there was silence except for soft weeping, I realized I’d broken open a big taboo, so I asked folks to sing Amazing Grace with me to close the wound. It worked. After it was over, a black woman inmate blocked the door and said “Who the hell ARE you?” Her Name was Phillis, and we became close friends. Seemed like she was waiting for someone like me to come into her life, she’d never met anyone like me before. She was from Watts in LA. She left prison before me. We promised to keep in touch. When I got out, I learned she was killed in LA.
“In the County jail where I spent 3 months I read Poetry and sang and prayed every day, and got a following. It was all nature based. I would watch a spider build a complete web from start to finish. I ran in the “yard” every day I could and laid on the ground. I witnessed the courtship, nest building, egg sitting and first flights of a dove family. Every thing slowed way down. That was in the very restricted county jail. Prison was Awesome compared to jail. It was like I was in the Zoo and the wild animals came to see us. I was in a minimum security on a section of land in the desert. I saw rattlesnakes mating dance, Bees looking for a place to build a hive, coyotes chasing a deer. I could go on and on…
“There was no way I could envision an environmental movement, in my situation, at least. I was branded as scary, dangerous, crazy, by most inmates. I prevented guards and inmates from killing snakes by getting between them and the snake or toad or what ever they were intent on killing. I was fearless and that freaked them all out. The Spanish speakers called me Bruja, but would use me as a dream interpreter on the sly. Since I’m not an organizer, I have no skills in that department… They wrote me off as a nut case.”
From Daniel McGowan
“It is actually quite difficult. On one level, you realize you are living in what used to be a wooded area. Every prison I had been in was surrounded by woods or farmland. The prison then is a rather ugly blight on that land and you are reminded of this reality every time you walk the yard. The other thing that always hit me was how much the prison wasted, whether it was the sheer amount of garbage created or the electricity and water used to power such an institution. Having mostly lived in cities and being a fastidious recycler etc, I was always pained by having no choice but throwing things out in prison. Obviously, there was no recycling but also, reuse was difficult as the cops have strict rules about stuff in your cells. People are inventive of course and find ways around this. I wrote my letters on scrap paper, paper bags, old flyers, whatever I could find…. [K]nowing that having a radio meant I would be contributing a very large share of dead batteries to some landfill somewhere. An interesting thing about being an environmentalist is how when people would find out, invariably, they would ask, ‘What, like Greenpeace?’”
Is it possible to keep a connection to nature from behind bars?
“To the extent you are not in solitary and have access to the yard, I think there are moments in which you can maintain some connection to nature. It’s not like you are ever going to camp or have real quiet time, but i often walked many laps around the track and during the winter, there were only a few of us. At times, due to the poor shoveling, this certainly felt like hiking! One of the only pleasant things about rural prisons is having the chance to see the wildlife that comes up to the fence. I saw deer, rabbits and frogs often but the coolest thing I ever saw were the bats every single night at Sandstone (northern Minnesota) as the sun set. At Terre Haute, we often fed raccoon tiny hot dogs that were scavenged and most people fed the feral cats and birds at every spot I was at.”
Does it feel to you like there is potential for an environmental movement to grow inside the prison system? If so, how would you envision it? (If no, why not?)
“I am unsure how that would look. I mean, on one level, from inside, you are often hamstrung in what you can do and what it would look like. I think one way is by talking to people about environmental issues in the news. I don’t know if the goal should be to grow the environmental movement in prisons as much as having ‘eco’s fight prisons for what they are.
“There is the danger of myopia on this issue. Just look at how green LEED certified prisons are being lauded for how much energy and money they save. I don’t want prisons to be showcases of green architecture. I want them gone!”
About contamination surrounding Marion
“People wrote me to tell me that Crab Orchard is polluted and that the water at Marion was bad. What could I do with this info? I had to drink water.”
[Below is a clip from a documentary titled Around the Crab Orchard.]