New York City Inmates Without Heat, Linked in Climate Justice Struggle

Interview with Panagioti Tsolkas, an organizer with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Starting in late January and lasting almost a week, frigid temperatures in the single digits in the Northeast coincided with a breakdown in the heating system at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. More than 1,600 inmates had no heat, hot meals, hot water for showers or light in their cells. For security reasons, inmates were placed on lockdown in their cells, where temperatures were the coldest. One inmate reported that a third blanket he was using to try to keep warm was taken away by guards who said that by regulations, inmates could have no more than two blankets.
Family members of prisoners and others outraged by the situation rallied daily outside the complex, demanding their loved ones be moved until heat was restored. At one point, a group of protesters were pepper-sprayed by guards. The prisoners were not moved, but after several days, heat and hot water were restored.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Panagioti Tsolkas. He co-founded the Prison Ecology Project of the Human Rights Defense Center to research the intersection of the prison system and environmental contamination – and the impacts of climate change on penal institutions. Here, he examines the links between environmental justice and mass incarceration.

PANAGIOTI TSOLKAS: I track issues of prisons and jails ad detention facilities all over the country, overlaps between environmental protection and mass incarceration, and looking at the intersection of climate justice and pollution and how those things are related to criminal justice and the prison system. And I know from following similar stories from all across the country, this is not a rare occasion when power goes out for days or weeks at a time. Extreme weather often is the cause of a major environmental justice issue arising. So in this case, possibly because of a spike in cold weather causing stress on regional utilities, that may have been related. A lot of prison facilities, whether new or old, are built with sub-standard infrastructure. The old ones are even worse, but prisons exist almost as this domestic Third World, this kind of captive nation that people have referred to, and this exists on many levels: on labor standards, prisoners work but they are not protected by basic labor laws; prisoners face environmental standards that we’ve been tracking, but they often look more like the conditions of a maquiladora that we find south of the border where environmental regulations either are very relaxed or non-existent, because what’s happening is behind closed doors or on the other side of a fence or a wall.

So the situation at MDC needs to be put in the national picture of incarceration in this country. Sadly, it’s not shocking. Just days or weeks before the news broke about the MDC power outages, there were viral videos from Chicago of prison slaves shoveling snow in blizzard conditions. And over the course of a year before that, I could point to a dozen cases where prisoners were caught in floods or conditions during a post-hurricane being horrendous on the coast of Florida or South Carolina. These are all intersections of climate justice and prison abolition and I think it’s important to view the atrocities at MDC with that lens: this overlap between environmental justice and mass incarceration is kind of climaxing as the climate itself is destabilizing. You know, increasing numbers of prisoners die from extreme heat every year, but extreme cold should not be neglected.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Panagioti Tsolkas, as a prison abolitionist, I don’t know what your view is about small reform steps. But in this Brooklyn detention center case, the warden was criticized for not having an emergency plan in place, like, even just giving prisoners extra blankets, if not removing them from their freezing cells altogether.

PANAGIOTI TSOLKAS: Well, yeah, I think that’s obvious. As a prison abolitionist, I think conditions of confinement and daily struggles around reform are the foundation of the movement and how we build networks of support on the inside and the outside so I think of course we have to grapple with these issues and put them in context of fundamental change, ultimately creating a system so distinct that I don’t think the same words would even apply. We want to change the criminal justice system so fundamentally that it would be unrecognizable.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, people might be wondering what a prison abolitionist thinks about people taking responsibility for their actions and what kind of accountability you think is just.

PANAGIOTI TSOLKAS: You know, I guess I view the transition from what we have to what we want or what we will have at some point – sooner, the harder we push – that communities are empowered to deal with conflict in ways that make sense locally, regionally, culturally. And of course, this is a criminal justice system that predated nation states and large-scale, empire-building governments. We know it’s feasible because it’s been done for thousands of years of recorded history prior to current forms of government that we now see. I guess I look to that as a model – and it still happens in many neighborhoods, especially with youth where communities come together and deal with a conflict or problem in an attempt to avoid dealing with law enforcement, especially communities that know the repercussions to be so severe and so biased. And so I think tapping into that and understanding how that can and should work.

A lot of crime – so-called crime – stems from inequality and injustice fundamentally, so addressing mental health needs, viewing drugs as a social and health crisis, not a criminal issue. If it weren’t for the criminal aspect, I think a lot of the social harm around it would be reduced significantly. So those are things, for example, that I feel like are steps toward the bigger picture of dealing with the crisis at MDC that happened in the previous weeks.

For more information on the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, visit fighttoxicprisons.orgFor information on the Prison Ecology Project, visit nationinside.org/campaign/prison-ecology.

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