Uyen Hoang: Climate justice means prison abolition

Courtesy | Steve Liptay/Peaceful Uprising Climate Justice activists halt mining operations and road construction at the first US tar sands stripmine, located in Eastern Utah.

For the past year, I have been a volunteer with the University of Utah Prison Education Project (UPEP), a program that provides on-site college courses to incarcerated students.

As an environmental studies major, I find that many people are confused when I tell them I volunteer with UPEP.

“Why are you involved with something that doesn’t relate to your major?” they ask.

What they do not realize is that environmental justice also means prison abolition.

A recently released investigation from the Public Accountability Initiative found that many of America’s largest oil and gas companies and private utilities, along with the banks behind them, are funding police foundations throughout the nation. In Utah, Chevron, Dominion Energy, Rocky Mountain Power, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Wells Fargo are among the largest donors to the Salt Lake City Police Foundation.

This report comes out as the coronavirus pandemic and mass uprisings for racial justice reveal inequities in health, environmental hazards and policing.

It’s been just over 60 days since the first COVID-19 case in the Utah State Prison. Research shows that incarcerated folks are 550% more likely to contract the coronavirus and are 300% more likely to die from it than the general population.

Communities on the west side of Salt Lake City, which are disproportionately impacted by pollution and police violence, are now disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. As these impacted communities rise up for racial justice, they have been increasingly tyrannized by police brutality.

A stark and unjust cycle of oppression revolves around corporate polluters and policing. The fossil fuel industry and other corporate entities pollute and dump toxic waste disproportionately in Black and brown communities. Similar to this, law enforcement disproportionately polices Black and brown neighborhoods, which is unsurprising since law enforcement originated to preserve chattel slavery.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a prison abolitionist and professor at The City University of New York, sums this by stating, “The places where inequalities are the deepest, the use of prison and punishment is the greatest.”

When these frontline communities organize for equal access to opportunities, clean air, water, land and justice for their people, they are met by more violence and criminalized by the state.

The militarized response to the water protectors at Standing Rock in 2016 serves as a blatant example of this. Since then, over a dozen states have tried to criminalize pipeline protests.

Once incarcerated, those previously impacted by environmental harms remain the most vulnerable to disease and the climate crisis.

This story is not new, but rather centuries old, from the colonization and attempted genocide of Native Americans, to police violence during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the Black Lives Matter movement today.

This cycle of environmental destruction, brutalization and criminalization will inevitably continue unless institutions that police and pollute our communities are abolished. This means we must defund police, prisons and fossil fuels and reinvest in systems of care and regeneration led and owned by impacted communities. This includes education, mental health, nourishing food, renewable energy, social workers, green spaces and clean water.

If combating climate change is about eradicating fossil fuel emissions and fighting for equity, then we must also eradicate the carceral state that upholds the fossil fuel industry and further perpetuates the degradation of our planet and suffering of all living beings.

This fall, young climate justice organizers with Uplift Climate will further these conversations and actions with the launch of a Salt Lake City Uplift Chapter. Keep an eye on the website for more updates on how to get involved.

Let’s imagine and create a world that values people and planet, not prisons and pipelines.

Uyen Hoang

Uyen Hoang recently graduated with a bachelor of science degree in environmental and sustainability studies from the University of Utah. She is a fellow with Uplift Climate and a volunteer with the University of Utah Prison Education Project.