Prisons, Ecology and the Birth of an Empire


From Earth First! Newswire/ By Panagioti

Strange sometimes how worlds collide. Nine years ago I found myself in the swamps of the northeastern Everglades listening to an independent, traditional Seminole activist asking for support in challenging the state and federal government’s plans to fund a celebration of 500 years of Florida—a history that began, in many ways, with the founding of one of the best known tourist traps in this country’s history.

If Christopher Columbus is a symbol marking the origin of Manifest Destiny’s rampage across the western hemisphere, then conquistador Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who established the colony of St. Augustine, built the first literal foundation under that genocidal, ecocidal mindset.

Today, as I occupy my time developing the Prison Ecology Project, aimed at mapping the intersections of incarceration, ecology and environmental racism, it’s hard not to also view St. Augustine as the first prison town of what would become the U.S. Empire—a nation that has distinguished itself in the modern world by simultaneously pushing global policies that have facilitated an unprecedented pillaging of the planet for resources and for locking people up at a never-before-seen scale or pace in human history.

For many people I’ve spoken with over the past several months, there is a gut level, intuitive response to view these things—mass incarceration and industrial pollution—as connected in some way. Since the Prison Ecology Project began earlier this year, it has been able to establish dozens of concrete examples of that connection all across the country in the here-and-now. But learning more about the history of St. Augustine, as their big 450th Anniversary celebration is about to commence in 6 weeks (featuring a planned appearance by the King and Queen of Spain), has got me thinking a lot about the deeper roots of the prison/ecology intersection. And it ain’t pretty.


Eastern State Penitentiary’s 1836 floor plan

Conventional history places the initial prison boom in the U.S. as the penitentiaries of the Mid-Atlantic region in a first wave of criminal justice reform stemming from the American Revolution’s break with the brutality of justice under British colonialism. On October 25, 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary became what was considered to be the world’s first “true penitentiary.” Eastern State’s new system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania system,” supposedly allowed people an opportunity to correct themselves through the Quaker values of silence, solitude and reflection, with Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon structure allowing a benevolent warden to oversee the prisoners and ensure their safety. In cities to the north, the prison reform debate raged with the construction of new prisons, including the now-famous Sing Sing, which used the Auburn system, or the “New York system”, which held that prisoners should be forced to work and could be subjected to physical punishment. (Yes, the New York model won out.)


Native American prisoners held at Castillo de San Marcos, 1875. State Archives of Florida

Native American prisoners held at Castillo de San Marcos, 1875. State Archives of Florida

But it’s down in Florida where the first real prison town of the continent existed, and had been plugging away since 1570, when Spanish soldiers in St. Augustine had built the first substantial prison in North America. (It’s worth noting that as other European nations began to compete with Spain for land and wealth in the “New World,” they also turned to prisoners to fill out the crews on their ships.)

According to the Coalition:

By 1837, the Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine was used explicitly as a prison for Seminole people who resisted the policy of forced relocation. By 1875, the fort was used to imprison indigenous people under attack throughout the West, including Chiefs from the Cheyenne and Kiowa tribes. These prisoners became treated as a tourist attraction for vacationing teachers and missionaries experimenting in techniques of forced cultural assimilation. In 1886 nearly 500 Apache prisoners were held at the fort, many of whom died there.  For the most part, the prisoners were men who had refused to accept the Federal government’s system of reservations for controlling the tribes.

Apaches at Castillo de San Marcos

Apaches at Castillo de San Marcos

It’s in that history where something much more familiar to the modern U.S. prison system is actually surfacing, at least in its overall intent—convict labor at the service of corporate globalization (a synonym for Manifest Destiny), and the use of incarceration as a tool of mass repression against people defending their land and communities, and even more so, preempting others from joining them.

While the construction and engineering of prisons today looks, at the surface, more like Bentham’s post-colonial panopticon of penitence, the purpose they serve is much more aligned with what we could call the “St. Augustine System.” A system where imprisonment is not based on crimes one may have committed, but on the threat that broad populations of disenfranchised people pose to the stability of an empire based on tearing apart entire cultures in the endless pursuit of greed.

Descendents of the millions of Africans subjected to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the tribes of people native to North America who faced genocidal expansionist policies 500 years ago, and the immigrant labor force that was shipped from all over the world between that time and now, these are the people filling the prisons today. Black, Latino and Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in every one of the states in the U.S. today—even in states like Vermont, with 96% population of white people. And the low-income white descendents of European immigrant laborers essentially make up the rest of the prison population (though assimilation into whiteness makes this a near-impossible statistic to track.)

ecology3You may recall this demographic of people from noted moments in recent history such as: the labor movement, the fight for civil rights, Black and Brown Power organizing for self-determination, American Indian sovereignty struggles, and more recently, the battle to secure environmental justice protections. In the past 30 years, there was a 500% increase in locking people up, tapping these demographics to the tune of around 10 million people at any given moment under extreme state surveillance (prison, house arrest, parole, probation), and scaring the shit out of… excuse me, having a chilling effect… on countless millions more.

It was in viewing this reality of the criminal justice system that the Prison Ecology Project decided to intervene in the Environmental Justice 2020 (EJ 2020) strategy session that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ecology2(EPA) initiated earlier this year. If you read the EPA’s guidelines on who is entitled to environmental justice protections that it is obligated to provide under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which explicitly prohibits discrimination by government agencies that receive any federal funds), it’s basically the exact—albeit unspoken—criteria that the criminal justice system uses to decide who rots in prison and who goes on to become investment bankers.

As it turns out, despite passing the Civil Rights Act more than 50 years ago, the U.S. government has been entirely ignoring the environmental health protections that are implied under Title VI for the millions of people behind bars. And while the Constitution does still enshrine the practice of prison slave labor in the 13th Amendment, it does not legally strip people of their other Civil Rights, such as the protection from discrimination in environmental permitting and enforcement of regulations.  Prisons are heavy industrial facilities, akin to factory farms in their pollution output of sewage and chemicals. If it’s an issue to live next to one, then it sure as hell should be to live inside one.

A modern day prison in Appalachia’s Gulag Archipelago (Welch, West Virginia)

A modern day prison in Appalachia’s Gulag Archipelago (Welch, West Virginia)

Thankfully the Prison Ecology Project was not alone in seeing that. Ninety-three other organizations signed on directly to the EJ 2020 comment that was submitted earlier this month, and others submitted letters which supported the position of recognizing prisoners as deserving environmental justice protections. Among those were several Earth First! groups, Rising Tide North America, the National Lawyers Guild, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater (founded by Pete Seeger), a Quaker group (perhaps repenting for follies of their predecessors in PA), the EJ Forum (the biggest environmental justice coalition in the country), a former EPA chief attorney, and even the Sierra Club—the largest membership-based environmental organization in the U.S. [Check out the EJ 2020 comments from Sierra and EJ Forum in the links above.]

This could be a small but significant step in the unraveling of the racist, repressive incarceration policies of the past few centuries… If we build off it. Are you in? If so, let’s meet up in St. Augustine, Sept 5th – 9th.

And on that note, the Resist 450 Coalition reminds us: “Although the Castillo de San Marcos prison was closed in 1900, the legacy of brutality continues today in Florida’s prisons, which have been making recent headlines for their high levels of violence and corruption,” also that “famed Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier is held today in a federal prison only two hours from St. Augustine, in Coleman, FL.”

The Coalition goes on further to declare that the Castillo de San Marcos Fort and Prison should be torn down. In calling for such, they have contacted the monarchs of Spain, Pope Francis, and “the descendants of the Aboriginal Indigenous People who, among others, were reported to have been held captive prisoners in the Castillo de San Marcos…”

This list includes:
 • Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas
• Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town
• Apache Tribe of Oklahoma
• Arapaho Tribe of Wind River Reservation
• Caddo Nation
• Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma
• Chickasaw Nation
• Comanche Nation
• Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples
• Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana
• Fort Still Apache Tribe
• Jicarilla Apache Tribe of the Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation
• Muscogee (Creek) Nation
• Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation
• Poarch Band of Creek Indians
• San Carlos Apache Tribe of the San Carlos Reservation
• Simanolee People
• Thlopthlocco Tribal Town
• Tonto Apache Tribe of Arizona
• White Mountain Apache Tribe of the Fort Apache Reservation
• Yavapai-Apache Nation of the Camp Verde Indian Reservation

The list can also be found on the PDF flyer for Resist 450, along with a calendar of events, available to be download and printed to circulate widely.


Panagioti is a former editor on the Earth First! Journal collective and current coordinator of the Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Ecology Project. For more on the subject of incarceration and the environment, check out his article “The Ecology of a Prison Nation” available in the latest issue of the Earth First! Journal. He hopes to see you out on the streets of St. Augustine during the 450 protests, and asks that you kick in a few bucks to support the Prison Ecology Project.