Aylesbury mega-prison: why environmental movements should fight against prison expansion

People | Communities

By Hannah Corsini, Freelance Writer

Published September 13th, 2022

In early 2022, campaigners from Aylesbury, United Kingdom, halted the plans for a mega-prison. Here is why other environmental groups should be doing the same.

The very first eighteen years of my life were spent in Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire, which grew in infamy at the beginning of this year after being voted the worst place to live in England.

This was the conclusion of a poll run by the website iLiveHere, decided to be the case by an embarrassingly large 100,000 participants. The primary reasons cited were traffic, crime and neglect of the environment.

It is true that when I think of Aylesbury, I think of the roads—scores upon scores of cars, travelling to and from London and the surrounding areas—but still, Aylesbury is socioeconomically more privileged than most, particularly when you compare it to the North of England rather than the surrounding South-East.

Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Aylesbury, 2009. | R~P~M / Flickr

I opened with this anecdote because I want to place some things into context. Aylesbury is a town which has undergone significant expansion in the last half a century. Particularly in the last two decades, it has become a hub of construction projects, from the establishment of new housing estates by property developers to the recent influx of railway work on lines like HS2 and EWR.

In the months spanning from mid-2021 to early 2022 (coinciding with the aforementioned ‘worst town’ poll), Aylesbury became the site of a battle over plans to build a new mega-prison. Given that the area has traditionally always voted Conservative and has been host to a prison since 1820—converted into a Young Offenders’ Institute in 1961—you might have expected the Aylesbury mega-prison proposal to be uncontroversial. Surprisingly, however, it caused outrage across the political spectrum.

The opposition to the development was largely fought on ecological grounds: with the planned prison expected to cause increased flooding, significant hedgerow loss—causing irreversible damage to local species assemblages and biodiversity—and the destruction of local green field sites.

Even Greg Smith, the Conservative MP for Buckingham, voiced his objection, with the tenet that a brownfield site should have been selected instead. Much of the backing for the movement followed suit in their emphasis on the location of the planned prison instead of the fact that the prison was being built at all.

‘Surprisingly, it caused outrage across the political spectrum.’

Why do we say ‘no more prisons here instead of just ‘no more additional prisons’? Models have shown that an increase in incarceration rates is strongly linked to increased emissions. The construction and maintenance of prisons need obscene amounts of fossil fuels, as does the production of the goods and services required to house hundreds of people in a small space.

Over 80,000 people in the UK are incarcerated—nearly double the prison population in the late 1970s before successive neoliberal governments beginning with Thatcher. This is a number which could be drastically reduced if proper investment were to be given to health, education and welfare, rendering the construction of new prisons unnecessary.

Instead, the Conservative party are seemingly marching ahead with Project Speed, investing in 10,000 new prison places whilst the country is gripped in a cost of living crisis. Further exacerbating the socio-economic conditions leading to crime, and tightening protest laws, which ensure that incarceration rates go up, instead of down.

Cheap prison labour is also used in countries such as the US and the UK, where the national minimum wage does not apply to incarcerated people. Prisoners are used to mass-produce commodities, including supplies for the armed forces, making this labour a cog in the wheel of a global war machine which is killing both people and the planet.

An Extinction Rebellion Protest in London, 2019. | Stefan Müller / Flickr

In California, overcrowding of prisons has also resulted in frequent sewage pollution of local waters, negatively impacting the health of surrounding communities and causing ecological damage to creeks and rivers.

The treadmill of production theory is the idea that the obsession with economic growth that dominates capitalist societies ultimately leads to a stagnating economy; well-being remains the same, but ever-increasing production causes massive environmental harm.

Mass incarceration creates a population of consumers entirely dependent on corporations to provide them with the resources they need to survive, such as bedding, food and toiletries, and at the same time, a population of workers who feed into the never-ending chain of production—an ouroboros of capitalism.

Simultaneously, you have ‘withdrawals’, as resources are being extracted from the environment, and ‘additions’, the pollution and waste generated from production. This is all so that the prison chain of production can keep churning. So, who benefits? Certainly not the planet, nor the majority of its inhabitants. Only corporations, driven by the mindless pursuit of profit, can claim any kind of victory.

‘Mass incarceration creates an Ouroboros of capitalism.’

With this in mind, it could be suggested that mainstream environmental groups in the UK, such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the electoral Green Party, should take up the cause to end prison expansion. The Green Party, like most major political parties, vows to tackle social causes of crime and reduce prison population numbers, whilst simultaneously pledging to put more police on the streets.

XR has also previously encouraged its own members to be arrested and jailed, advice which the organisation later acknowledged as myopic given the dangers presented to racial minorities by the police. Perhaps this is a symptom of a wider failure to centre the voices of people of colour in environmental movements.

The call from XR for civil disobedience exists at a time where structural racism remains rife in British prisons. UK statistics from 2017 to 2018 figures show that the police are four times as likely to use force on black people. Black and brown people in the UK are also disproportionately likely to be incarcerated; in HMP Aylesbury, 72% of prisoners are men of colour, with 38% being black.

Statistics show disparate arrest probability based on race. According to statistics from 2016, around 20% of black suspects for drug offences are arrested, compared to just 8% of white suspects. Black suspects are also 240% more likely to receive prison sentences. With this in mind, XR and other environmental groups need to acknowledge the varying degrees in which structural racism will impact their protesters.

Defined in its conception by Benjamin Chavis, environmental racism sees the targeting of certain communities for exposure to ‘life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants.’ With the crowded nature of prisons creating biohazards such as rodent infestations and bodily fluid contaminations, and confirmed reports of infected water at prisons across the US, these institutions can be regarded as representing a global pattern of environmental racism. Prisons are not only a social, but an environmental issue.

An abandoned prison. | Olli Homann / Flickr

Environmental justice requires inclusivity. We must reckon with the disproportionate levels of environmental pollution faced by communities of colour by elevating their voices within the movement. Only when we achieve this mindset can we even begin to perform meaningful environmentalism.

The campaigners against the mega-prison in Aylesbury won, but their victory is ultimately worthless if the prison is simply built elsewhere, another community left to deal with its effects. We need local environmental action, but we also need to think bigger—only with drastic, fundamental change from the ways in which we exist now are we going to transform the world for the better.

Featured Image: Hédi Benyounes | Unsplash

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