Green Decarceration Teach-In Talks Environmental Justice and Criminal Justice Reform

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 10:23pm

Mary Heinen, founding member of Prison Creative Arts Project, speaks at the Green Decarceration Teach-In, a part of the Earth Day at 50 Commemorative Week of Action, at the Michigan League Henderson Room Tuesday afternoon.

Mary Heinen, founding member of Prison Creative Arts Project, speaks at the Green Decarceration Teach-In, a part of the Earth Day at 50 Commemorative Week of Action, at the Michigan League Henderson Room Tuesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Maddie Fox/Daily

Mary Heinen, co-founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan, spoke from experience at “Green Decarceration: The Intersection of Environmental Justice and Criminal Justice Reform” on Tuesday. 

When Heinen was incarcerated, prison guards told her that properties 100 miles around the prison would not sell because the water was toxic. 

“If you got a cup of water and tried to make a cup of coffee, you can see oil on the top of it and little white crystals in it,” Heinen said. “And there were warnings in the visiting room: don’t drink the water, and if you’re pregnant, really don’t drink the water. But you knew, I’m drinking this, I’m bathing in this, my clothes are being washed in this. You knew you were in trouble.”

About 30 students, faculty and community members attended the event as a part of Earth Day festivities taking place at Michigan League Tuesday afternoon. Nora Krinitsky, Interim Director of the Prison Creative Arts Project, led the teach-in, and speakers included Heinen and Josh Hoe, policy analyst for the non-profit Safe and Just Michigan. Krinitsky said the climate crisis and the carceral system are critical issues facing society and younger generations.

“Those are two very big, complicated problems that can feel really overwhelming when you’re kind of looking at them as an individual,” Krinitsky said. “What that means is that both of them are going to require big social movements in order to make really significant change.”

Heinen spoke about her experience going through Michigan’s prison system for decades as she served a three back-to-back life sentences. As she was transferred from prison to prison, she said poor conditions were a common theme. In the now-closed Florence Crane Correctional Facility, Heinen said women often died from obscure medical conditions related to the toxic water. 

“As time went on, lifers that I was friends with had really severe headaches. You’d have a period for two months,” Heinen said. “They had women who had strokes, they had tumors, they had rare cancers. The generation before me, who were there when I arrived, one by one by one those women died.”

LSA senior Taylor Luthe came to the teach-in with a personal connection to the criminal justice movement. Luthe said her mother was incarcerated when she was a child, and she had to step out of the room for a moment after Heinen shared her emotional experiences. 

“These people, like she was saying, were her sisters and the people that she essentially grew up with while she was inside and were her family,” Luthe said. “Just the blatant disregard for humanity and seeing that come through in what she was speaking about, and also imagining my mom in that situation, imagining these horrible things happening to the people that I love was hard.”

Hoe spoke to specific connections between the criminal justice movement and climate movement. He said heat, diseases and poor water quality, in particular, affect prisoners disproportionately. 

“Prisons are the zero point of a lot of this climate change stuff,” Hoe said. “Mobility is what allows you to adapt to climate change, and you can’t adapt if you can’t move, and you can’t adapt if you can’t build or do any of the things that are necessary to protect yourself.”

Engineering senior Charlie Gerard told The Daily after the event that he appreciated learning more about the criminal justice movement from Hoe, but said the connection with environmental justice felt like a stretch. 

“Obviously, there are unfortunate cases as well, but generally if you’re in prison, you did something wrong and you’re there for punishment,” Gerard said. “Maybe the climate has an adverse effect, but I don’t think that’s a reason to remove people from prison.”

As an example of the direct impact climate change has on prisoners, Hoe told the story of Shawna Lynn Jones, one of many California prisoners paid low wages to fight wildfires. Hoe said Jones became the first firefighter to die in 2016 when a boulder hit and killed her. 

“She was 22-years-old and only three months from release, and she was getting paid basically nothing to go out and risk her life to fight fires for a state full of people who didn’t want her to be part of their community,” Hoe said. 

Luthe said she was angry when she heard Jones’s story, particularly because she said formerly incarcerated people often cannot apply the skills they learned in prison once they are released back into society. 

“I think (Hoe) was absolutely correct when he called it exploitation,” Luthe said. “It’s just blatant disregard for human life. … I think it’s absolutely horrendous that you could put your life on the line so that other firefighters who have not been incarcerated don’t have to do that. And yet you are not welcomed in … you have these skills, but you’re not able to use them.”

Matthew Lassiter, assistant history professor, said he’s noticed racial disparities between the student environmental and criminal justice movements in his 20 years at the University.

“Environmental activism has largely tended to be white students,” Lassiter said. “They’re really good on issues of environmental racism, environmental justice, environmental sustainability, but it’s often centered around PITE and the School of Environment and Sustainability … It’s a different crowd than when you go to a mass incarceration event and see a lot more African American students and people of color there. To me, these issues are very intertwined and that’s something this teach-in can emphasize.”

After the event, Krinitsky commented on the broad impact of criminal justice and environmental justice. 

“These are both movements that touch you even if you don’t know it yet,” Krinistky said. “In some ways, it’s a little bit easier to see that when it comes to climate justice just because of where we imagine the climate to be. One thing that I say to folks who haven’t yet worked on decarceration is that I guarantee you that you or someone you love is not that far away from being involved in the criminal justice system.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu