This section explores the ways carceral logics shape carceral spaces, which in turn impact the lives and well-being of the humans and nonhumans within them. Carceral spaces raise a variety of questions, some of which are explored in the chapters here. Can zoos educate children about the lives of other animals, or is that impossible given the distorted situation in which humans are so clearly dominating and controlling the captive animals? Do conservation efforts justify holding individual wild animals captive or provide an excuse for carceral enclosure? Does bringing animals into prisons for training and care further entrench carceral logics for prisoners and captive animals? How do carceral responses to activism on behalf of animals and the environment impact the potential for social change?
Carceral logics inform the building and justification of captive enclosures that contain humans and other animals. While captive settings vary considerably, there are certain features of carceral spaces that exist across captive contexts, whether one is confined by bars, chains, ankle bracelets, cages, prisons, coops, fences, or locked doors. The most obvious feature is that captives are denied freedoms of various kinds, including freely choosing those things which will satisfy their most basic desires. Of course, none of us is free to make any choice we want; we are restricted by state, economic, and social institutions and ideologies that limit us in a range of ways – by the binary genders we are assigned, by social and psychic worlds structured by ableism, and by the thick boundaries based on class, religion, ethnicity, race, and even our species. But these constraints on liberty, that also are informed by carceral logics, are worsened by the effects of physical confinement.
Among carceral strategies, the decision to pursue or permit physical confinement is uniquely deserving of heightened attention. Those who are physically confined generally do not have the opportunity to make basic decisions about what to eat and when, when to sleep, where to go, whom to spend time with (or not spend time with). Even decisions relating to sexual autonomy, reproduction, and the care of one’s offspring may be made by persons running captive facilities. Almost all choices are restricted, and activities are controlled. Animals held in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), research labs, and zoos and other carceral spaces often suffer from captivity itself, in addition to any specific forms of harm and injury they are subjected to as a result of the purpose of the confinement. They are poked, prodded, branded, injected, shocked, subject to noxious stimuli, forcibly impregnated, and they can’t escape. Many have never known freedom as they are bred into commodification or specimenification. Some animals may never go outside or stand on natural surfaces. Even when they have always been captives, their inability to control their circumstances, flee their environments, or have their minds or bodies stimulated in positive ways often leads to behavioral anomalies referred to as “stereotypies,” behaviors that do not occur in the wild. “Stereotypies are thought to be caused by brain dysfunction brought on by stress-induced damage to the central nervous system” (Bekoff and Pierce). And the damage and dysfunction are not exclusively a result of “bad” captive conditions, as Bekoff and Pierce say: “There is no such thing as ‘good captivity’ or ‘good incarceration.’” Boredom, self-harm, and other aberrant behaviors emerge from captivity itself.
In prisons, humans suffer in demeaning, often violent, conditions that cause physical and psychological harms. Prisoners experience frustration, loneliness, shame, depression, humiliation, and dehumanizing, deanimalizing indignities.Footnote 1 There are long-term psychological impacts that also develop due to boredom, anxiety, lack of loving touch, and general lack of control. Some of those incarcerated had one terrible day when things went horribly wrong and a human or animal was injured or killed. Others have more of a history of harmful or socially disapproved behaviors. Some incarcerated people are activists who worked toward bringing about better conditions for other animals and the environment and their imprisonment is not just harmful to them, but also to the social justice movements they were a part of. One of the points of incarcerating those activists is “to repress the people and ideas that generate resistance to multispecies oppressions and to ensure the continued functioning of a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, speciesist, ecocidal capitalist state” (Pellow).
Though it is not usually discussed in the context of human imprisonment, animals suffer from the existence of prisons too. Countless animals are harmed to feed those who are incarcerated; other animals are harmed when they find their way into prisons and are exterminated; some are harmed in programs that are designed to train animals to “work”; and many more animals living near prisons are harmed by the waste that is produced in the prison. Some prisons are now operating factory farms with prison labor. “The prison as structure harms surrounding waters, lands, and ecosystems, often making life impossible for the more-than-human displaced and affected by its presence” (Montford). Prisons are not good for people, not good for other animals, not good for the environment. And most forms of animal confinement harm animals and humans alike. Increasingly, researchers are showing that the health of humans and animals is interconnected, and carceral spaces for any species will likely harm others.
Carceral spaces, whether prisons, zoos, ranches, or some other system of confinement, cause a variety of direct harms to those held within them, and there are also potential harms to those who live around these spaces, as well as those who work there or visit those held captive. Too often the justification for inflicting such harms is not obvious or ultimately tenable. In the context of zoos and immigrant detention centers, for example, human children are often invoked as a way to “soften the edges” of these harmful environments (Deckha). This is particularly obvious in the justification of zoos and aquaria – it is often claimed that putting wild animals on display helps children to develop respect for nature. But in reality, children seem to gain very little from these experiences beyond momentary excitement, and instead their presence does more to justify these spaces. Children serve to create “social credibility” for the existence of these carceral spaces, and the narrative of preserving endangered species for future generations furthers the narrative. Whether captive animals in fact help with conservation efforts and whether their captivity is a necessary part of conservation programs is rarely discussed.
The chapters in Part III make vivid one of the central points of the book: carceral logics are bad for animals and for humans. Incarcerating humans invariably harms animals directly, with little downstream promise of deterring or protecting animals in the community more generally. Likewise, animal confinement often threatens the health and well-being, both physical and psychological, of human communities. The impacts of captivity are not nearly as discrete and limited as often imagined, and advocates for humans and advocates for animals will do well to consider the interconnected ways that carceral spaces enforce and support various oppressions.
Freedom is one of the values humans most cherish. We are free if we are not imprisoned or enslaved. We are free if we are not unduly coerced or constrained in our choices or actions. Freedom can be difficult to define, but surely, we know when we lose it or when it has been taken from us.
Human rights advocates are rightly concerned when certain groups of people are exploited for their labor, like migrant workers forced into virtual slavery on fishing vessels or toiling in fields for little pay. They are concerned when groups of people are exploited for their bodies, as when young girls are forced into the sex trade. And they are concerned when groups of people are not allowed to move about or speak freely or engage in cultural rituals that are important to them. We value the freedom to choose our family and friends, to bear and raise children, to think for ourselves, and to work for a decent living. Of course, there is no such thing as pure, unadulterated freedom – we are controlled by our unconscious impulses, genetics, unspoken social conventions, and by government rules that ensure public safety and order. But we are nonetheless free in important respects. Some measure of freedom is fundamental to human well-being: it provides the substrate for human flourishing.Footnote 1
Yet although we prize our freedom above all else, we routinely deny numerous freedoms to nonhuman animals (animals) with whom we share our planet. We imprison and enslave animals, we exploit them for their labor and their skin and bodies, we constrain what they can do and with whom they can interact. We do not let them choose their family or friends, we decide for them when and if and with whom they mate and bear offspring, and often take their children away at birth. We control their movements, their behaviors, their social interactions, while bending them to our will or to our self-serving economic agenda. Animal incarceration is so pervasive and insidious that we often do not even notice that animals are being held prisoner. If we think about it at all, we imagine animals as creatures so different from us that they don’t value the same things – and, in particular, that they don’t value their freedom because they lack the cognitive awareness to know what freedom is.
But, in fact, animals are like us in the most important respects. All animals want and need food, water, air, sleep. They need shelter and safety from physical and psychological threats, and an environment they can control. And like us, they have what might be called “higher-order” needs, such as the need to exercise control over their lives, make choices, do meaningful work, form meaningful relationships with others, and engage in forms of play and creativity. Some measure of freedom is fundamental to satisfying these higher-order needs and provides a necessary substrate for individuals to thrive and to look forward to a new day. Although they might not write books about the concepts of freedom and incarceration, animals nonetheless value their freedom and suffer in captivity just as we do.
The goods that animals value stand in stark relief against the lives that we force on them. Animals are held captive in a dizzying array of venues: zoos, factory farms, research laboratories, wet markets, fur farms, breeding facilities, pet store shelves, and so on and so on. Billions of animals around the globe are subjected to a lifetime of incarceration. (Incarceration and captivity are taken to be the same, for the purposes of this chapter.)
Incarceration clearly is more complicated and far-reaching than merely being behind bars. When we put nonhumans and humans in prison, we are dealing out punishment. Being physically confined is understood as a temporary deprivation of life’s higher-order goods. But with animals, the routine deprivations of prolonged incarceration are not understood by humans as a punishment, but rather as a neutral action, or even – as is the case with pets – a favor we do them.
Although there might be some reasonable conversation or debate about the appropriateness of incarceration for humans, there is no reasonable justification for incarcerating animals. Animals should not be behind bars, whether those bars are real or metaphorical. Animals don’t commit crimes, they aren’t violent offenders, and they don’t disregard any real or imagined social contract with humankind. Any confinement of animals against their will (which would be pretty much every instance of confinement one could imagine) counts as incarceration.
12.1 The Myriad Harms of Captivity
The fact that there is an entire literature dedicated to so-called captivity effects should leave us in no doubt that captivity causes suffering. “Captivity effects” refers to the range of physical, physiological, and even neurobiological changes induced by captive conditions. These captivity effects are similar in humans and other animals. The vast empirical database on captivity effects in nonhuman animals spans a broad range of species – from chimpanzees, dolphins, and wolves to domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, pigs, and chickens, to reptiles, amphibians, and fish – kept in a range of captive conditions, from the most obviously captive (the cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals on factory farms) to the animals caged in research and testing laboratories, to animals caged in zoos, to the animals who are captive in more ambiguous ways, such as pet dogs and cats.Footnote 2 (Because the literature uses the language of “captivity” rather than “incarceration” we will use the term captivity in this section – but take it to be synonymous with incarceration.)
Captivity – including physical confinement, social isolation, and chronic exposure to stress – leads to measurable physiological changes in the brain, including loss of neural plasticity, long-term activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis,Footnote 3 and permanent changes in brain morphology.Footnote 4 It can lead to changes to immune function,Footnote 5 reproductive behaviors,Footnote 6 circadian rhythms, and psychological trauma.Footnote 7 The loss of freedom often manifests in observable abnormal behaviors. Since many of the people who will read this book come from the perspective of human incarceration, we offer a few specific examples of the physical and psychological sequelae of incarceration documented in animals. In particular, we give a few examples of what, in the scientific literature, are called “stereotypic behaviors or stereotypies” but which we could more loosely call “captivity-induced madness.”
Stereotypic behavior is the term used to describe animal behavior which is invariant, repetitive, and serves no obvious function. Stereotypes are thought to be caused by brain dysfunction brought on by stress-induced damage to the central nervous system. It is important to note that stereotypic behaviors do not occur in the wild; they are a product of captivity, a captivity-induced psychosis.Footnote 8
Irregular pacing behavior is often observed in captive animals who, in the wild, have large home ranges. This behavior pattern is referred to as a repetitive locomotion stereotype, or locomotory stereotypy. Polar bears, to give one example, are known to do poorly in captivity. A study published in Nature suggested that the reason why locomotory stereotypies may be so common in polar bears is that in the wild, the animals can range over tracts of land as large as 185,000 square miles each year.Footnote 9 Locomotory stereotypies are well documented in elephants, tigers, lions, wolves, and other canids.Footnote 10 The frenetic weaving of the mink back and forth within their tiny wire cages, as seen in undercover video footage of mink farms, is a disturbing example of locomotory stereotypy or captivity-induced madness.Footnote 11
Grooming to the point of baldness, feather plucking, and other self-mutilation behaviors are sometimes called self-directed stereotypies.Footnote 12 These behaviors occur in a wide range of species including rodents and primates in research laboratories, parrots, and other birds in captivity and cats in shelter environments or other stressful situations.
Oral stereotypies, in which an animal performs repetitive and seemingly functionless oral and oronasal activities, are prevalent in captive ungulates such as cows, pigs, and horses.Footnote 13 One example is a repetitive movement of the jaw, such as the “sham-chewing” commonly seen in pigs kept in gestation crates.Footnote 14 The behavior mimics the exact movement of the jaw when food is being consumed. However, sham-chewing is performed in the absence of food. Oral stereotypies surrounding food and eating are a good place to explore why providing animals with their basic needs – food, shelter, enough space to turn around – isn’t enough to ensure that they don’t suffer from profound distress caused by captivity. Next to breathing, eating is the behavior most essential for survival, and different species are exquisitely adapted to meet their survival needs within the ecosystems in which they evolved. Many of the behavioral patterns of a given animal are directed at finding food, and animals are highly motivated to perform these food-acquiring behaviors, because they are basic to survival. Providing a cow with a trough of grain may satiate the cow’s physical hunger but will not allow the cow to use any of the behavioral skills she has evolved to acquire food for herself. The behavioral urge to forage is present, even when cows are fed ad libitum. And a strong behavioral urge or motivation that goes unsatisfied leads to welfare problems. Other commonly seen oral stereotypies include tongue-rolling, object licking, chewing on cage bars or chains, and polydipsia or excessive drinking.
Often, and unfortunately for animals, the behavioral sequalae resulting from captivity are described as “problem behaviors” – this is to say, they are problematic for us, the animals’ keepers. This is perhaps most obvious in relation to animals caught in the wheels of the food industry, where the sequalae of incarceration pose a challenge to productivity. For example, agonistic behaviors among chickens or tail-biting behaviors among piglets kept in unnaturally crowded conditions can lead to injury and death – and loss of revenue. The human response to these manifestations of suffering is indecent: instead of addressing the source of suffering, we go for a Band-Aid solution, and one that simply piles one cruelty on top of another. Chickens have their beaks cut off with a hot knife and piglets have their tails cut off with clippers. A less obvious example – but closer to home for many of us – are the perceived behavioral problems of dogs who are confined to a home or crate or backyard for long periods of time: excessive barking, obsessive compulsive behaviors such as self-grooming to the point of developing lick granulomas. Many people who live with dogs fail to connect their animals’ “problem behaviors” with psychological distress, boredom, or frustration, and, as with the chickens and piglets, simply compound cruelty with more cruelty: excessive barking is “fixed” with a shock collar or a one-way trip to the shelter.
It can be difficult to untangle the threads of harm arising from animal incarceration: which aspects of animal suffering are attributed to the specific conditions of their captivity and which are the result of captivity itself? This distinction is critically important because the focus of attention in discussions of animal welfare and animal ethics is often on reducing specific harms suffered by captive animals, and never questions the broader harms of captivity itself. The physical, psychological, social harms to animals caused by the captive state are not or at least not always the result of poorly executed captivity, but of captivity itself. Take, for example, the problems of captive snakes, which have been highlighted by the work of Clifford Warwick. Most snakes in captivity as kept in enclosures that are too small to allow full extension of the snake’s body, and snakes are harmed physically and psychologically by not having enough space to spread out.Footnote 15 But they are also harmed by captivity itself, no matter whether their enclosure is adequately large relative to their body size.
Suffice it to say that alleviating some of the suffering caused by “bad captivity” may be a good short-term goal, as we move beyond cultural and economic structures that institutionalize violence toward animals. But improving the lot of captive animals is not enough. There is no such thing as “good captivity” or “good incarceration” for animals, and we need to stop pretending that there is. A well-appointed prison is still a prison.
12.2 Fake Freedoms: The Appropriation of “Freedom” Discourses
Many people who have taken an interest in issues of animal protection are familiar with the “Five Freedoms.” The Five Freedoms have become a popular cornerstone of animal welfare around the world and in various contexts of animal incarceration.
The Five Freedoms originated in the early 1960s in an eighty-five-page “Report of the Technical Committee to Enquire into the Welfare of Animals Kept under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems.”Footnote 16 This document, informally and widely known as The Brambell Report, was a response to public outcry over the abusive treatment of animals within agricultural settings. Ruth Harrison’s 1964 book Animal Machines brought readers inside the walls of the newly developing industrialized farming systems in the United Kingdom, what we have come to know as “factory farms.” Harrison, a Quaker and conscientious objector during World War II, described appalling practices like battery cage systems for egg-laying hens and gestation crates for sows, and consumers were shocked by what was hidden behind closed doors.
To mollify the public, the UK government commissioned an investigation into livestock husbandry, led by Bangor University zoology professor Roger Brambell. The commission concluded that there were, indeed, grave ethical concerns with the treatment of animals in the food industry and that something must be done. In its initial report, the commission specified that animals should have the freedom to “stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs.” These minimal requirements became known as the “freedoms,” and represented the conditions the Brambell Commission felt were essential to animal welfare.
The Commission also requested the formation of the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee to monitor the UK farming industry. In 1979, the name of this organization was changed to the Farm Animal Welfare Council, and the “freedoms” were subsequently expanded into their current form. The Five Freedoms state that all animals under human care should have:
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst, by ready access to water and a diet to maintain health and vigor.
2. Freedom from discomfort, by providing an appropriate environment.
3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease, by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to express normal behavior, by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and appropriate company of the animal’s own kind.
5. Freedom from fear and distress, by ensuring conditions and treatment, which avoid mental suffering.
The Freedoms are now invoked not only in relationship to farmed animals, but also to animals in research laboratories, zoos. and aquaria, and even to companion animals in shelters and breeding facilities. The Freedoms appear in nearly every book about animal welfare, can be found on nearly every website dedicated to food animal or lab animal welfare, form the basis of many animal welfare auditing programs, and are taught to many of those working in fields of animal husbandry.
It is worth stopping for a moment to acknowledge how forward thinking the Brambell Report on animal freedoms was. The report was crafted at a time when the notion that animals might experience pain was still just a superstition for many researchers and others working with animals. The Brambell Report not only acknowledged that animals experience pain but went a giant step further by also providing evidence that they experience mental states and have rich emotional lives. The report (the full text of which very few people who ascribe to the Five Freedoms actually read) said plainly that making animals happy involves more than simply reducing sources of pain and suffering, but also involves providing them with positive, pleasurable experiences.
Yet although widely hailed as a huge step forward, the Brambell Report was arguably the worst thing that has happened to animals in the past century. The Five Freedoms became the cornerstone of an academic discipline called “animal welfare science” and provided a justificatory framework – a logic of incarceration which we call “welfarism” – for thinking about and justifying the widespread confinement and exploitation of animals. The Five Freedoms have become shorthand for “ethical treatment of animals.” They provide, according to a current statement by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, a “logical and comprehensive framework for analysis of animal welfare” and are typically the end of the conversation about what animals need and want. Welfarism delivers a scientific and moral buttressing for incarceration, under the auspices of caring for animals and giving them Freedoms. Under the welfarist regime, the number of animals under incarceration around the globe has been steadily climbing.
Why the Brambell Commission fixed upon the word “freedom” in their formulation of welfare guidelines remains unclear – no record exists of how this language came to be adopted. It is hard to imagine that the crafters of the Freedoms failed to recognize the fundamental paradox: how can an animal in an abattoir or battery cage be free? Being fed and housed by your captor is not freedom; it is simply what your caregiver does to keep you alive. Indeed, the Five Freedoms are not concerned with freedom but rather define the outer limits of incarceration; they provide guidance for keeping animals under conditions of profound deprivation.
Welfare concerns generally focus on preventing or relieving suffering, and making sure animals are being well-fed and cared for, without questioning the underlying conditions of incarceration that shape the very nature of their lives. We offer lip service to freedom, in talking about “cage-free chickens” and “naturalistic zoo enclosures” and in producing a steady stream of academic papers offering incremental improvements to animal prisons. But real freedom for animals is the one value we don’t want to acknowledge because it would require a deep examination of our own behavior. It might mean we should change the way we treat and relate to animals, not just to make cages bigger or provide new enrichment activities to blunt the sharp edges of boredom and frustration, but to allow animals much more freedom in a wide array of venues.
12.3 Working toward Abolition
A great deal of advocacy on behalf of animals focuses on “improving welfare” by paying attention to the Five Freedoms. This amounts to making animal prisons somewhat nicer, somewhat kinder and gentler. But the fundamental violence against animals remains intact. Welfarism and “the Freedoms” do considerable damage to animals by reinforcing and even providing improved moral padding for the logic of incarceration. This explains why some of the most vocal advocates for animal welfare work for zoos, slaughterhouses, and animal research laboratories, and sit on the boards of organizations who support the industrialized incarceration of animals.
Even the literature on captivity effects has been entwined into the logic of animal incarceration, using what we are learning about animal cognition and emotions – the very research that confirms how much animals have to lose in captivity – to make their incarceration incrementally less torturous while simultaneously reinforcing the structures of violence that keep them imprisoned.
The typical justification for holding animals captive is that although captivity may impose some harms, these harms are justified by the benefits that accrue from these practices. But one of the golden rules of ethics is that in a balancing of harms and benefits, it is unjust for the harms to befall one group and the benefits another. In the case of incarcerated animals, all the harms fall on animals while all the benefits fall to us. The animals have everything to lose and nothing to gain. This is a serious justice issue and a blatant abuse of power.
It is hard not to see a profound moral problem in our unjust incarceration of billions of animals. Making incremental welfare improvements and giving lip service to Five Freedoms is a face-saving maneuver: let’s admit that holding animals captive is not ideal and causes some harm, so let’s make the prison experience less unpleasant by decreasing the harms of captivity. The audaciousness of the workaround is remarkable: incarcerating animals is morally wrong, so let’s give them “freedoms.” The Five Freedoms are really designed to liberate us, allowing us to slip quietly past the prison gates, ensuring our peace of mind in the face of animal suffering.
The incarceration of animals, in all its myriad forms, should stop. But it cannot and will not suddenly tomorrow. A phase out is key. The animals who are currently in captivity will need to remain so, because it is unlikely that they could survive on their own and offering them “freedom” without the requisite skills to survive and without a home or family will only compound their suffering. But starting tomorrow there should be no more captive breeding of animals in captivity, for captivity. No animals should be captured from the wild and made captive, even for experiments that are aimed at saving the species from extinction since it is not fair to ask an individual to suffer for the sake of a group. (We wouldn’t justify this with humans, so shouldn’t with animals either.)
Abundant scientific research supports the idea that animals suffer physically and psychologically when held captive. It is not only the “aversive” experiences felt within captivity – the too-small cages, the boredom of eating the same food every day for your whole life, or the lack of sensory stimulation – but the captivity experience itself, the loss of self-determination, bodily integrity, the sense of experiencing life as the kind of animal that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years of evolution have prepared you to be. Captivity is a harm because it robs animals of their own lives.
This chapter explores how human children soften the abusive edge of carceral spaces. Prisons, immigration detention centres, and zoos and aquaria are institutions that attract sustained public scrutiny from prisoner rights, migrant rights, anti-racist, and animal rights movements. Critics and scholars note the entwined nature of race, gender, and species logics that shape and unite these spaces and object to the short- and long-term incarceration these institutions make possible as well as the conditions residents confined within experience.Footnote 1 Prisoner rights, migrant rights, and animal rights critics also contest the messaging that these institutions and their proponents use to assure the public of the need for confinement and the ethical acceptability of the conditions captive animals and humans experience.Footnote 2 These discourses, depending on the specific institution, highlight the larger public “law and order” interests of safety and border control, but also “progressive” interests of rehabilitation, conservation, and education.Footnote 3
In highlighting these latter “progressive” interests, carceral institutions seek to humanize themselves and their work to bolster their social credibility. This “humane-washing” occurs through long-standing rationales about rehabilitation for offenders in the prison context, and more recent rationales about the conservation of nature and conservation education in the zoo and aquarium context. It also, I will argue, occurs through a specific type of marshaling of the human child. I seek to add to the literature on “humane-washing”Footnote 4 as well as contestations and uses of “childhood” and “family” narrativesFootnote 5 in general in this analysis. I apply a multispecies lens to consider how the real and imagined human child in the zoo and aquaria context, and narratives about what is in the best interests of human children in the immigration and prison context, figure into characterizing such carceral institutions as legally and socially legitimate spaces.Footnote 6 The argument acknowledges that these carceral spaces can yield positive benefits for some, such as rehabilitation or rescue of a specific individual or even conservation of a specific species. However, it accepts the existing critical scholarly literature against such spaces overall to focus on the question of how carceral spaces mask their problematic and oppressive nature by integrating the presence of human children.
13.2 The Use of “Children” to Humanize Carceral Spaces
To be sure, prisons, detention centres, and zoos and aquaria are not primarily or simply spaces for children. But this makes the question of when and where children do acquire importance in these “paradigm institutions of domination”Footnote 7 all the more pressing. This part of the analysis takes up this question.
13.2.1 How Children’s Need for Conservation Education Legitimates Zoos and Aquaria
If there is one carceral place where children are encouraged to attend for educational and recreational purposes, it is the zoo and aquarium. A zoo is a place of childhoodFootnote 8 and family.Footnote 9 As one travel writer put it: “Spending a night at the zoo is a perennial childhood fantasy: many a popular children’s book features a lock-in with exotic animals as its plot.”Footnote 10 As one example of this fantasy turning into reality, consider the Edmonton Valley Zoo, where Lucy, an Asian elephant languishes on her own with chronic health conditions, and has been the subject of two high-profile lawsuits by animal rights advocates to move her to a sanctuary.Footnote 11 Annually, the Edmonton Valley Zoo hosts such a “magical evening” for children with disabilities that they call “Dreamnight.”Footnote 12 Edmonton Valley Zoo is not alone in this child-centered initiative. Its website indicates that “Dreamnight now spans over 300 zoos internationally, with more zoos joining each year.”Footnote 13 In Canada and the United States, industry statistics also confirm the tight correlation between zoos and children, with well over half of visitors comprising children under eleven years of age.Footnote 14
With young children’s lives generally being immersed in animal narratives through picture books, television shows, films, apps, and toys and stuffed animals,Footnote 15 it is not surprising that children want to go to zoos and aquaria or that their families wish to take them to these places to see the animals. Yet, with increased protest against animal captivity in zoos as well as the acculturation of accredited zoos to the science of conservation biology, such places have had to reposition themselves to maintain respectable public stature. They have dissociated themselves from their traditional but now increasingly-discredited reasons for why animals have to be in captivity related to imperial history, exotica, leisure, and recreationFootnote 16 to re-branding themselves as conservation and educational centres.Footnote 17 Moreover, when zoos and aquaria are critiqued for keeping wild animals captive or for running captive breeding programs, many point to educational and conservation mandates of their institutions and the social value of wild animal captivity for these purposes.Footnote 18 As Irus Braverman has documented in her comprehensive study of American zoos, zoos emphasize the boost that captive breeding in zoos plays for conservation efforts of wild populations (whether such populations are characterized as in situ, ex situ, or intersitu) in response to animal rights opponents seeking zoos’ abolition.Footnote 19 As well, zoos and aquaria point to their rescue and rehabilitation of injured wild animals and claim to serve a leading role in teaching the public about the need for conservation given the ongoing phenomenon of species extinction.Footnote 20
Although it is not a point that Braverman herself unpacks, we can observe that such justificatory mandates for the continued purported need for zoos and aquaria revolve around the human child. The presence of children in zoos and aquaria as visitors on family outings and school trips is routine and critical to the continued viability of zoos and aquaria.Footnote 21 Some scholars have noted how children are the target audiences for conservation messaging from zoos and aquaria, making them the principal human cohort that is said to benefit from the conservation work zoos and aquaria do.Footnote 22 Conservation discourses are aimed at preserving species for future human generations. We see that above in the Canadian context of the Edmonton Valley Zoo. But a quick look at zoo and aquarium websites worldwide reveal that such messaging is not anomalous; conservation educational efforts are disproportionately directed at children with school visits, overnight stays, birthday parties, and camps as regular parts of the zoo and aquarium offerings and overall experience.
Consider the mission statement for the global industry-leading San Diego Zoo. In the rotating banner on their website’s home page, it says their mission is to end species extinction.Footnote 23 When a visitor clicks on the banner to learn more, they are taken to a painting of various animals that looks like it is from a children’s picture book, with the caption underneath indicating that the “San Diego Zoo global is a conservation organization committed to saving species around the world.”Footnote 24 After depictions of children along with their parents happily gazing at the animals swimming in a tank, the page goes on to discuss “The Human-Animal Connection”:
For more than a century, people have flocked to the San Diego Zoo to discover animals. The Zoo connects people with wildlife to inspire a passion for nature. Picture the wide-eyed wonder on a child’s face upon meeting a living, breathing giraffe, something she’s only seen on a digital screen before. Or the wonder of encountering a penguin that is looking at you with the same curiosity you have about him. These are the moments that tell the story of the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. It is these connections that spark the desire to protect and save species.Footnote 25
Messaging on the website of other world-famous top-ranked zoos,Footnote 26 such as at Taronga Zoo SydneyFootnote 27 and Singapore Zoo (as part of Wildlife Reserves SingaporeFootnote 28), is similar. For example, under the heading “Our Animals” across from an image of a baby chimpanzee latched onto her mother, Taronga Zoo Sydney states: “Taronga cares for over 4000 animals from over 350 species, many of which are threatened. Find out which fascinating animals you might meet on your visit, and how we’re contributing to global efforts to save species from the brink of extinction.”Footnote 29 Virtual visitors are then invited to click on animals by species to learn more and are taken to new webpages with photos and a short description of the animal species along with how the zoo is saving the species through breeding programs, participation in rehabilitation and release programs, or other initiatives.Footnote 30 Virtual visitors can also watch the animals on Taronga TV.Footnote 31 School excursions are offered, and the website assures parents that there are many “kid-friendly” activities at the zoo.
The offering of “educational” programming for children allows the zoos to present themselves as an essential provider of an important public service: teaching and inspiring the next human generation about the wonders of “nature” and the importance of wildlife conservation. How can a space that children flock to with their families to see cute animal babies and learn about the “natural world” possibly be objectionable? It is challenging to look past the family-friendly veneer of these spaces, especially given the other measures zoos have adopted to erase visible signs of captivity,Footnote 32 to expose the conditions of captivity and the harms they produce. The marshalling of children and families as principal implicit stakeholders for zoos contributes to the humane-washing that zoo critics have already pointed to regarding zoos’ efforts to improve animal welfareFootnote 33 which “make the intrinsic violence of custody and display more palatable, more subtle, and less visible.”Footnote 34
And even when such violence is on display, as it was on February 9, 2014, when the Copenhagen zoo chose to kill a healthy eighteen-month old giraffe they had named Marius because he was seen as a “surplus” animal that threatened the carefully cultivated genetic pool of giraffes in European zoos should he mature and reproduce, children are deployed to rationalize it.Footnote 35 A zoo veterinarian shot Marius in the head outside of the public eye, but the feeding of his carcass to three zoo lions (who were killed a month later to be replaced by a young male lion unrelated to the females in the den) was made public as a children’s “educational” event.Footnote 36 The zoo sought to quell the storm of international controversy that erupted through multiple justifications: (1) the breeding program’s genetic parameters, (2) using Marius’ flesh as food for zoo lions, and (3) conducting a three-hour dismemberment and dissection of Marius’ body in front of a public audience as an educational experience for children in anatomy and the realities of life.Footnote 37 All of these justifications can be impugned. Lori Gruen has noted that the disposable treatment of Marius spurred by reigning genetic logic was also then later applied to kill the lions (a mother and her two cubs) to whom Marius was fed a mere month later.Footnote 38 Despite the reining narrative of conservation, Gruen pointedly observes that “[c]ausing death is what zoos do” not simply due to genetic management concerns but also due to the effects of captivity.Footnote 39
It is instructive that the Copenhagen zoo did not merely rest on the first two justifications about why Marius had to be killed, perhaps aware that its rationalizations about genetic control of animals for conservation purposes and that Marius’ carcass was not “wasted” because three lions benefitted are not sufficient to convince the public about the ethics of killing a very young giraffe. It is likely not fortuitous that the zoo chose to market the killing as an educational opportunity – not generically, but for schoolchildren. Pointing to the absurdity of this particular invocation of the educational value of Marius’ death, Craig Gingrich-Philbrook observes: “It seems never to occur to the zoo officials offering this pedagogical alibi that, if a culture does indeed wish to educate children about the relationships between animals and death, one could easily bus them to a nearby slaughterhouse.”Footnote 40 As Gingrich-Philbrook goes on to note, of course, this does not occur, as the slaughterhouse is not perceived to be suitable viewing material for children or a family-friendly place. Children are not present at slaughterhouses, and industrialized societies take enormous discursive and material efforts to hide the way in which animals are produced from our sensibilitiesFootnote 41 and even from slaughterhouse employees themselves.Footnote 42 Gingrich-Philbrook exposes the not-so-subtle ways in which the presence of children at the zoo is critical to its organizing genetic conservationist logic justifying the zoos and aquaria’s continued need for existence. When the lethal nature of zoo decisions and activities are put (exceptionally) on public display, children are made visible to attenuate negative perception and restore confidence of zoos as ethical spaces that the public should support.
Doubtless, death of megafauna is never on display at a for-profit aquarium like SeaWorld, whose family brand – iconized through the ageless killer whale Shamu – and messaging to children is powered by relentless marketing that suggests to (the largely white or middle class families that visit), that SeaWorld is family-friendly entertainment at its best. In her incisive account of spectacle and performance on display at SeaWorld, Jane Desmond calls attention to the conservation and family-oriented discourses and practices SeaWorld marshals to validate its entertainment and reduce the chance that its adult visitors might question the captivity of orcas for the fun and thrill of watching the ocean’s top predators perform elaborate tricks at the behest of human trainers.Footnote 43 Marketing to families and even children directly is central to SeaWorld’s commercial success – gift shops that sell stuffed animals and toys to children are strategically placed throughout the theme park,Footnote 44 and SeaWorld has launched three SeaWorld Kids apps to target this key demographic.Footnote 45
But more so than marketing to ensure top profits, it is the presence and figure of human children that is critical to the validating messaging of the “good work” that SeaWorld and other animal-display venues (whether for-profit or not) are doing as “family-friendly” places to visit. Without children, the emphasis on “family” is unintelligible given the dominant heteronormative futurist logics through which most of us understand the term “family.”Footnote 46 Further, SeaWorld makes it clear that its educational and conservation messaging is directed at children.Footnote 47 Children are also invoked in legal battles that question captivity. The documentary BlackFish and memoirs by former lead trainers have affected SeaWorld’s bottom lineFootnote 48 as well as its ability to breed any more cetaceans.Footnote 49 BlackFish has also had a similar, if less direct, effect on Canada’s Vancouver Aquarium,Footnote 50 despite the fact it did not then house orcas.Footnote 51 Both have resisted the efforts of legislative bans on future breeding or captivity and animal rights campaigns against them through careful reiteration of their conservation mandate and benefit to human children.Footnote 52
13.2.2 The Use of Children to Humanize Immigration Detention and Human Prisons
In marked contrast to zoos and aquaria, immigration detention facilities and human prisons are not promoted as educational sites for children to visit. Those confined in these facilities attest to their extensive adverse effects.Footnote 53 The scholarly literature documenting the negative effects in general on humans who are kept captive is well established and will not be repeated here. What is lesser known is how children also inhabit these spaces, not only during visiting hours or as teenagers in juvenile detention facilities, but as young children who reside inside alongside their parents, overwhelmingly mothers. In this section, I discuss this phenomenon in the Canadian context and its underlying rationale as something “progressive” meant to improve the conditions of and reduce the family separation and, specifically mother-child attachment, harms that prisons and immigration detention occasion in the first place. I show how human children are marshalled to humanize these captive spaces with known disruptive and often devastating family harms.
126.96.36.199 Immigration Detention
In immigration detention centres, while some countries enforce the devastating measure of separating children from their caregivers, other countries house parents in immigration detention with their children; and others still take the further step of housing children legally entitled to be in a country (usually because they are born there after their mother entered illegally) with their “illegal” parent in detention centres. As I discuss below with respect to the Canadian context, this practice arises out of a concern for the welfare of the children as well as of the parents who wish to avoid separation from their children while detained. As recent practices at the US-Mexican border have showcased, the forced separation of children from their parents upon detention has attracted overwhelming public outcry.Footnote 54 Family maintenance during immigration processing and detention can thus be a positive measure that softens the harsh edges of immigration detention.Footnote 55
In Canada, however, separating children from their parents is supposed to be a last resort under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.Footnote 56 Minor children are not supposed to be detained except according to their best interests.Footnote 57 In 2017–18, advocacy organizations reported that 155 children were detained, an increase by their count of 4 children from 2016–17, but also a decrease from 232 in 2014–15.Footnote 58 Compared to the militarized and neoliberal border confinement practices in the United States since the 1980s,Footnote 59 Canada’s “last resort” policy appears responsive to the needs of parents and children. Yet, as a recent report prepared by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law entitled No Life for a Child explains, the situation is anything but.Footnote 60 Parents and children face conditions and resulting harm and trauma even when together. For one, where the children themselves are Canadian citizens, parents must confront the decision of permitting their child to enter the foster care system or having them detained with them to avoid losing their children.Footnote 61 Tracking children defined as seventeen and under, the No Life for a Child report notes that “between 2010 and 2014, an average of 242 children were detained each year” with numbers declining in the last two years.Footnote 62 The authors are careful to clarify that these numbers represent children under formal detention orders, arguing that the figures are higher given that many children also live with their mothers on a de facto basis in Immigration Holding Centres.Footnote 63
Although the children are called “guests” and not “detainees,”Footnote 64 this change in language does not materially erase the violation of their rights or those of children who are also considered illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a convention to which Canada is a signatory and has ratified.Footnote 65 The CRC stipulates in Article 3 that “the best interests of the child” should be paramount in any state decision (CRC). The authors of No Life for a Child and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Special Rights of Migrants, who wrote the Foreword to the report, both emphasized that the detention of children, even when rationalized as a last resort option, does not comply with the best interests principle.Footnote 66 Children stand to suffer psychologically and have traumatized caregivers even post-release.Footnote 67 The No Life for a Child report, the United Nations Commissioner for Children, and other child rights organizations have called for children to be able to stay with their families outside of detention even while undergoing refugee, asylum, and immigration processing.Footnote 68 Such critiques of “living in” help us recognize the brutalities for children in detention while also recognizing “progressive” policies for families as a welfarist measure that permits the underlying and problematic detention to continue.
In order to contend with the growing number of female prisoners who give birth while in prison – a phenomenon related to the fast-rising rate at which women are being incarcerated – and to respect the mutual benefits of maternal care and bonding for both the mother and child, prisons worldwide have housed young children with their mothers.Footnote 69 The realization by some governments that separating children from their incarcerated parents, particularly their mothers, even for short custodial sentences, entails long-lasting adverse effects on the childFootnote 70 is to be welcomed. It is a significant achievement when contrasted with jurisdictions such as the United States, which incarcerates roughly one-third of the world’s female prisoner population estimated at 625,000 in 2018,Footnote 71 and where the opportunities for children to stay with their mothers are scant.Footnote 72 In such situations of forced parental-child separation, a parental prison sentence is still effectively shared by the child, particularly when incarceration removes a mother from the child(ren) she was caring for,Footnote 73 and not only during the period of incarceration.Footnote 74 Having an incarcerated parent is a prominent “adverse childhood experience” (ACE) that predisposes children to additional ACEs for the child’s future adult years across many measures of success and well-being.Footnote 75 Such effects are heightened further when the incarcerated parent is the mother and contribute to the intergenerational compounding of gender, race, and class inequities given the disproportionate rate at which racialized and poor mothers are incarcerated in the United States and elsewhereFootnote 76 and that the bulk of caring for children left behind falls on related female kin rather than non-incarcerated fathers.Footnote 77
Still, it would be erroneous to assume that programs that allow children to accompany their mothers to prison or stay once they are born for their early formative years are a categorical improvement for children or their mothers. Taking a closer look at the Canadian program helps understand why. In Canada, a woman who is federally sentenced has had the right to apply to live with her child since 2001 when Correctional Services Canada implemented the federal Mother-Child Program (MCP),Footnote 78 following recommendations by the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women in its report entitled Creating Choices.Footnote 79 The Task Force was established after intense media coverage of deaths in the then-existing Kingston Penitentiary for Women in Kingston, Ontario, and widespread reporting of the inhumane conditions therein.Footnote 80 The Task Force was established to change prison conditions for women.
The Task Force’s Report emphasized a “constant touchstone” for its plan to reform Canadian prisons for women, comprising the following factors: the need to “create choices” and for prison programming and operation to “mirror caring responses for women” that they would find “in the community, including Aboriginal and other ethnic communities”;Footnote 81 as in other jurisdictions where colonialism, poverty, and other forms of structural violence form the bedrock for vulnerabilities that place some more than others on a “pipeline” to prison, the incarcerated population in Canada is disproportionately poor and Indigenous.Footnote 82 In stressing the need to “empower women to take responsibility of their lives,”Footnote 83 the report asked that prison initiatives “ensure that women are treated with respect and dignity” and be driven from the ground up by listening to the voices of women who are incarcerated as to their needs.Footnote 84 In sum, the report “envisioned an idealized prison environment that emphasized serenity and tranquility, plenty of space and privacy, was rehabilitative rather than security-focused and recognized women’s particular needs.”Footnote 85 As part of the changes that were then recommended, the report stressed the important need for inmates’ living choices to include “the opportunity for mothers and children to live together based on the rights and needs of the children, mothers and significant others in each individual case” by directing that each prison facility construct “an appropriate environment to enable a child or children to live with the mother” in a cottage-like setting.Footnote 86
As of 2014, MCPs were operational in five of the six federal facilities for women inmates across Canada.Footnote 87 Full-time residency for children under five, part-time residency for children under six (originally available to children five to twelve), and regular visiting for other children are all components of the program.Footnote 88 Despite these options, overall participation is extremely low;Footnote 89 across the country a mere fourteen children lived with their mothers between 2008 and 2014 in federal prisons and only eight lived full-time.Footnote 90 Numerous academic critiques have pointed to systemic gendered, colonial, ability, and class barriers to explain the non-optimal functioning of the program leading to very low rates of participation.Footnote 91 Significantly, however, as Sarah Brennan highlights, despite the program’s minimal uptake, “[i]t is noteworthy that not a single respondent identified a lack of interest on the part of incarcerated women as a possible reason for the low participation rate in the program.”Footnote 92 We can understand that the MCP is of utmost value to women who are mothers who wish to be with their children,Footnote 93 a valuation that is common to imprisoned mothers across the globe.Footnote 94 We can also understand that the presence of such a program in a prison context is one important way prison policies can become compliant with the “constant touchstone” of the Creating Choices Report,Footnote 95 namely, to treat women with respect, dignity, and care and empower them and help generate a more compassionate prison environment. Allowing mothers to stay with their children prevents trauma and other psychological and social ills to both.Footnote 96 Correctional Service Canada (CSC) itself has stated that the program “aims to provide a supportive environment that fosters and promotes stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship.”Footnote 97 In other words, the MCP can be understood as making the prison better and thus a more humane and socially defensible place to live.
But if the CSC’s goal is “to provide a supportive environment that fosters and promotes stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship,” it is necessary to ask whether the impetus for the program should not focus on how children can best enter the prison to be with their mothers but, instead, how mothers can exit the prison environment altogether to be with their children outside of captivity and in the community context. Thus far, acknowledging the harms of mother-child separation and benefits of keeping mothers with their children has not persuaded legislatures to stop the practice of incarcerating women who are mothers with children or otherwise have had caregiving responsibility for children disrupted by their imprisonment. Neither has awareness of Canada’s international law obligations as a signatory to the CRC, where all decisions regarding children must conform to the best interests of children. If the “best interests of children” is the ultimate benchmark for state decisions where children are involved, including whether a child can stay with her mother, and it is in the case of the MCP,Footnote 98 surely doing what is in the best interests means incarcerating neither the child nor her mother.
This option has not yet emerged as a priority, let alone a solution, in public government discourse in the year since Inglis was argued and decided. Canada is also a signatory to the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (“the Bangkok Rules”), which emphasize maximizing leave opportunities for mothers where safe to do so and in children’s best interests.Footnote 99 The Canadian government has cited these rules as part of the legal framework underlying a “gender responsive” and “trauma-centred” approach to corrections outlined in a report entitled Gender Responsive Corrections for Women in Canada: The Road to Successful Reintegration.Footnote 100 Despite referencing the Bangkok Rules, and identifying the high proportion of women who are mothers/active caregivers as a key gendered reality of the female prison population, and prioritizing for future work “(o)pportunities that promote stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship,” this “trauma-informed” report makes no mention of non-custodial sentences.Footnote 101
Judicial review of the MCP’s operation has also not led to a questioning of the carceral model for mothers despite the child-centered constitutional and international law obligations constraining government action in Canada. In Inglis v. British Columbia, the only constitutional challenge brought by mothers and their babies in relation to the program, here in relation to the closing of the MCP at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, the defendants Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor for British Columbia, the Attorney General of British Columbia, and the warden of the prison denied that the decision to cancel the program had to take into account the best interests of the children. The court rejected this argument, citing the CRC as well as the provincial child protection statute’s emphasis on the best interests of children as relevant context for the federal closure decision.Footnote 102 In addition, the court noted other child- and family-related international law principles that were applicable given Conventions that Canada had ratified. These regarded state protection for families in general, state protection for pregnant women and to mothers and newborns, and a mandate against separating children from their families unless necessary according to the best interests principle.Footnote 103 Madam Justice Ross found that the MCP was a program guided by the individualized best interests of each child, as decided by the ministry’s child protective administrative arm pursuant to the Child and Family Community Services Act.Footnote 104 She further observed that given the vulnerability and disadvantage experienced by incarcerated mothers and their babies, and noting in particular the “overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in the incarcerated population and the history of dislocation of Aboriginal families caused by state action,” that the MCP “represented a significant step forward in the amelioration of the circumstances of the mothers and their babies.”Footnote 105
The court went on to find that the closure violated section 7 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the country’s constitutional rights-protecting document vis-à-vis state action. It did so by denying both mothers and their infants their security of the person and liberty interests in remaining attached to each other and enjoying numerous benefits that attachment to mothers and breastfeeding bring for both parties now and later in life.Footnote 106 The court also held that the closure violated the equality rights of the mothers.Footnote 107 These violations could not be justified per the rationale and effects of the decision. The judicial remedy, in the end, however, was only to set aside the Corrections decision to close the program and the policy underlying it and to order the prison decision-makers to retake their decision. The mothers remained incarcerated.Footnote 108
The Inglis outcome is a “victory” for its plaintiffs in terms of the parameters of the constitutional challenged launched. Against the larger socio-legal landscape of the adverse effects of prisons on adults, but particularly children,Footnote 109 and the possibility that the MCP itself, similar to programs elsewhere,Footnote 110 is operationalized to judge women for their mothering in prison and thereby serves as “another mode of social control,”Footnote 111 the “victory” quickly loses its sheen. The option to remove mothers into the community to be with their babies or other children is not considered despite the strong rights vindication the court provides. As in the zoo context, the interests of human children, even the “best” interests of human children informed by national and international legal recognition of children’s rights, are not sufficient to question the need for incarceration of their mothers in the first place. With zoos and aquaria, animals’ incarceration is seen to be necessary to the conservation and education mandate. And in human prisons, the ongoing incarceration of mothers is presumed to be necessary presumably for reasons of public safety and deterrence. The presence of children in these carceral spaces helps to soften or gloss over the wide-ranging violence and vulnerability these spaces promote to make the captivity they embody less contentious.
13.3 Human Child–Animal Nexus: Understanding Child-Invoking Carceral Discourses as Perverse Deployments and Betrayals of Childhood
It is well established that certain human bodies are associated with nature and animals more than others. As Western societies were industrializing, human children were posited as closer to nature and surrounded with animal figures (through the rise of stuffed animals, companion animal keeping, and jungle gyms) even as societies and families transitioned from rural to urban landscapes.Footnote 112 In contemporary times, the association of children as closer to nature and animals is still intact through the continuation of stuffed animals and companion animals as normative in middle-class households,Footnote 113 coveted outdoor early childhood educational curriculums,Footnote 114 children’s picture books, readers, and other literature that is highly mediated by animal figures,Footnote 115 and, as we saw above, zoos and aquaria that pitch themselves as the ideal place for family-friendly outings where children can see “wild” animals. With this nexus in mind, this Part illuminates how this human child-animal nexus is marshaled to harm both animals and human children.
13.3.1 Children, Nature, and Innocence: Policy Drivers
The naturalization of children with an idea of pristine nature also marks their ostensible innocence and need for protection from those who would prey upon them.Footnote 116 For many non-white children in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, the narrative of childhood innocence does not reliably apply as they (and their families) are animalized to the extent of being dehumanized.Footnote 117
What can we make of the fact that human children are naturalized and animalized more so than adults, which helps to mark them out as innocent and in need of protection, and yet certain human children are animalized to such an extent that they lose the “innocence” marking and may be rendered (like animals) dispensable if not disposable? First, the partiality and instability of the childhood innocence frame confirms that although all human children are vulnerable to exploitation because of their developmental stage, this vulnerability is differentiated according to the social location of a child. But the juxtaposition also highlights how “childhood” is a socially constructed category, a reality brought into sharp relief not only through the prism of race- and class-based concepts of innocence, but also through the implicit human qualifier that delineates the concept of “children” and denies that status to animals, often leading human exceptionalists to protest any attempt to draw analogies between human children and animals.Footnote 118
This type of “boundary maintenance”Footnote 119 to shore up the fiction of humans as not-animal alerts us to how the figure of the child can be deployed in contested social arenas to validate certain policies or laws, and dismiss or otherwise marginalize alternative possibilities, a correlation others have established.Footnote 120 I have been arguing that with respect to the ongoing socially contested nature of zoos, prisons, and detention centres, the human child helps to validate the social acceptability of zoos, prisons, and detention centres by ostensibly humanizing these carceral spaces. This dynamic ensues even as vulnerable, disproportionately poor, and racialized human children within prisons and detention centres suffer inside them and even as ideologies about improving human children’s education and futures through exposure to zoos and aquaria violate the bodies and terminate the lives of animals and their children.
13.3.2 Inculcating Human Exceptionalism through Childhood Familiars
It is important to point out the particularly perverse dimensions of this deployment of the human child in these spaces. With respect to sites of animal captivity, it seems perverse that human children, whose social worlds are immersed and entwined with those of animals,Footnote 121 who closely identify with animals,Footnote 122 and who come to them for acceptance, resilience building, and to learn social-emotional skills,Footnote 123 learn through zoos to objectify, commodify, and dominate them instead.Footnote 124 The magnitude of this perversion is amplified particularly in zones of zoo and aquarium captivity. In these sites, both for growing insurance populations to buffer possible extinction in situ and for attracting visitors and revenue, captive breeding is practiced and thus the deliberate practice of bringing animal children into this world to grow up in conditions of captivity if they are permitted – unlike Marius and the two lion cubs to whom his body parts were fed – to grow up at all.
What is also deeply troubling is that we misrepresent to children what they are seeing or otherwise apprehending when we take them to the zoo to see newborn animal babies or otherwise. These visits idealized as family-friendly educational outings are excursions to enjoy a particular type of spectacle and performance, one that expresses human domination and entails torture and misery for the captive animals that is hidden or explained away.Footnote 125 Early work on learned helplessness in animals has shown that animals suffer from “behavioural despair” when repeated attempts to escape aversive conditions are unsuccessful.Footnote 126 They also experience neuroplasticity loss and long-term activation of parts of the brain that are adverse. The problem is not just solitary confinement, but massive overcrowding and under-stimulation or over-stimulation that leads to repetitive pacing, swaying, and other signs of captivity-induced madness.Footnote 127 The observation of animals in captivity, in the end, does not inculcate a conservationist mindset; the claim has no substantiation though it is oft repeated.Footnote 128 To the contrary, studies have demonstrated that people leave zoos with a human “superiority” mindset intactFootnote 129 even if they learn something about biodiversity.Footnote 130 The zoo is clearly a site where animal childhoods are always already compromised and the almost boundless level of control that humans legally exert over animals to instrumentalize them for human purposes is on display. What the typical zoo and aquaria-going human child and animals experience in this setting (and generally) is incommensurable.Footnote 131 But we also betray human children when we present the zoo as an innocuous space rather than expose it as one that teaches them that the ideal human subject denies their kinship with animals and learns to dominate them.
13.3.3 Incarcerating Children for Their Own Good
It also seems perverse to rationalize the incarceration of human children so that they can stay with their mothers (or other primary caregivers). How can being incarcerated be in their best interests when it is demonstrable that it is better for children and their mothers to be out of a carceral environment, however socioeconomically compromised their home living situation might be?Footnote 132 Attachment theory tells us that human children suffer on multiple levels when separated from their primary caregivers.Footnote 133 But to imagine that attachment theorists would accept prison as an acceptable way to maintain family bonds, rather than return human children with their families to their communities where the family poses no risk to the child and can be supported with proper services, is a disingenuous and deeply flawed deployment of attachment theory.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the bans on public gatherings it has entailed gave many humans worldwide their first experience of lockdown, shelter in place, and of generally not being able to leave their homes for many weeks if not months. Even if they could leave, the closure of familiar places of learning, recreation, and business did not allow them much choice as to where to go and what to do. Although the privileged among us had our many digital devices as per usual, many media stories appeared, presumably meant for those securely resourced and at home but now without their regular range of mobility, as how not to get bored,Footnote 134 how to keep children entertained and stimulated,Footnote 135 and how generally to keep a positive mood and get through the experience.Footnote 136 Although doubtless a stressful experience for even those privileged by class, geographic location, and species, the reality is that we place captive animals and humans in something markedly worse and vulnerability-inducing than a COVID-19 lockdown every single day of their captive existence. What this chapter has shown is how the presence of the human child helps to obscure the chronic harms of the permanent lockdown sites our societies normalize as well as justifies their continued existence.
The social and legal remedy for zoos seems straightforward (which is not to say it will be easy to implement or that other social supports will not be needed for transitions to sanctuaries or other models of living for the former captive animals). As Pierce and Bekoff argue, the vast majority of the world’s zoos should be shut down and technological exhibits should replace live animal ones in the remaining zoos that remain open and are well managed. They write: “If zoos are mainly for children (and, as the paying addendum, the parents), these interactive exhibits have the potential to be more fun and more educational than traditional zoo animal exhibits without the collateral damage of real animal lives … Zoos with live animals would become a thing of the past.”Footnote 137 As for the captive breeding argument, zoo administrators themselves admit the limits of this argument given the increasing difficulty of introducing animals back into the wild and the loss of their natural habitat in any case.Footnote 138
The answer to the harms that prison and detention centers occasion for children also behooves us to seek out alternative justice models and community-based alternatives to prison and detention while processing immigration claims.Footnote 139 If countries, like Canada, have signed and ratified the CRC, then they have committed themselves to upholding the CRC’s championing of the best-interests-of-the-child test as the primary consideration involving all state decisions regarding children and their parents.Footnote 140 Given the literature showing both the harms to children in prison or detention as well as the harms if they are separated from their parents, particularly mothers, the answer here also seems straightforward: children and their mothers or other caregivers should not be incarcerated or detained.Footnote 141 Instead of bringing children into captivity to avoid separation, the mother or caregiver and child should remain together outside of captivity (where there is no safety risk to the child and older children able to decide for themselves wish to do so). The rights and present and future interests of the child in remaining with a loving mother or other caregiver must take priority over incarceration rationales. The funds used to support incarceration and detention can now be redirected to the social services that will be required to implement alternative justice models and housing arrangements. These funds can also support the mother and her child(ren) in the community and mitigate vulnerabilities in communities in general which shape most adults’,Footnote 142 particularly women’s, pathways to prison.Footnote 143
Thousands of scholarly books and articles, films and documentaries, memoirs, biographies, illustrated weeklies, paintings and other artistic works, and museum artifacts and displays have depicted the history and geography of the nineteenth-century western American “cattle trails” and the small rural towns that sprang up at their termini.Footnote 1 This outsized body of American West literature and culture has collectively depicted bovine animals as an instrument, albeit an integral one, of cowboys, ranchers, cattle barons, and a multitude of other enterprising entrepreneurs who economically, politically, and culturally maneuvered control over the emerging livestock (beef) industry in the United States. From the classic John Hawkes 1948 Western film Red River to the more recent 2018 Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, key sites of this emergent industry such as Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas, figure prominently, while the animals themselves appear only as figures on the landscape, without lives, experiences, or agency. In such Western films the animals are typically portrayed as either peacefully grazing in beautiful pastoral landscapes or wholly out of control and wildly stampeding in clouds of dust. Once captured within the Abilene or Dodge City “cow town” we find them obediently if anxiously being herded into stock pens or other controlling devices, being made ready for shipment by railroad to slaughterhouses in Chicago and beyond.
My assessment of this body of work is that real animal lives and stories are nearly totally absent and remain to be studied and documented. My ultimate aim in this chapter is to begin to center these animals’ experiences within the “carceral archipelago” of the cattle trails and towns into which they were forced, identifying some of the material, social, and psychological experiences and trauma of becoming an animalized commodity within the carceral practices and infrastructures of the emergent cattle industry. Studying these animal lives fundamentally involves understanding their gradual commodification – these formerly free-roaming lives were literally turned into money, “free for the taking,” with virtually no official regulatory apparatus at the time guiding their capture, enclosure, movement, exploitation, and eventual death.
Animals had not heretofore figured in my field of carceral geography until my attempt to conceptualize a “trans-species carceral geography” in Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals (2018), a book which considered factory farms, slaughterhouses, research labs, and zoos as prisons or prisonlike spaces, with those incarcerated within them as animalized prisoners. In the book I placed into parallel conversation the connected and entangled spatial, structural, operational, and embodied carceral practices and processes of a number of industrial sites and institutions in the present-day United States. I aimed to uncover the epistemic violence that pervades spaces of both human and nonhuman animal captivity, confinement, exploitation, and death, a violence that is normalized and neutralized in countless ways in everyday life. Naming spaces of animal captivity and confinement as prisonlike allowed insights into the way that “carceral logics”Footnote 2 extend throughout the prison-, agricultural-, and medical-industrial complexes in similar ways. These logics impact both human and nonhuman animals in consistent and detrimental ways via processes of animalization, racialization (particularly via anti-blackness), and criminalization.
My conceptual intervention in this chapter occurs at the interface of carceral geography, critical animal histories, and material culture. Such an intervention requires a new understanding or remapping of the historical and empirical context of the Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas cattle trails and towns as a “rural carceral archipelago” – an archipelago with a very specific rural spatiality.Footnote 3 Unlike the scores of works that have focused on these trails and towns from cultural, economic, political, agricultural, or social lenses, I chart new ground by thinking about historical animal lives as those lived within carceral practices, operations, structures, and logics. Framing the carceral as a lived experience for bovine animals, as well as how this space developed as a specifically carceral archipelago, structures what follows in this chapter.
The illegal enclosure of the land by the emergent “cattle baron” class in the nineteenth century, enabled with new technologies such as barbed wire and governments lacking the interest, will, or ability to challenge it, offers important insights into how carceral logic works in place, and the impact of these practices and institutions on animals. Fencing became a primary mode of seizure of public land and resources for the benefit of individual ranching enterprises in the West. Despite the fact that land laws prohibited taking public lands, there were usually no repercussions for doing so. What then does it mean to think of the enclosure of public lands as illegal? The evolution of land law, with its ostensible legal remedies to resolve conflict among big-enterprise cattlemen and between smaller-scale farmers and ranchers, is an important component of carceral logics, particularly when considering who is helped by such legal remedies and who is not. Certain legal as well as extragovernment actions mediated human relations at the time, for example the “fence-cutting wars” emerged as one human resistance to carceral enclosure. But an equally important part of the story is about carceral practices mediating relations among humans (mostly men) and animals.
So rather than thinking of cattle trails and towns as sites of adventure, work, endurance, and romance for some humans, then, we can also focus on these places as sites of violence enacted upon animals – the capturing, transporting, fencing, corralling, branding, ear-marking, whipping, and shipping of animals as commodities for distant markets. What was it like for the animals to be “driven” quickly by workers (cowboys) who were themselves laboring under difficult circumstances? How did the cattle experience the new technologies such as wire fencing? What forms of bodily modification and appropriation were the animals subjected to – for example, the brutality of branding, whipping, and harnessing that marked them as property? What were the physical, emotional, and psychological implications of existing as beings with no legal standing, outside of the informal claims made by cattle barons and others? Any “laws” with oversight to the emergent cattle industry related only to access and control over land and water, not treatment of animals. No ostensible “protections” for farmed or ranched animals would appear in the United States until well into the twentieth century, and these to an extremely restricted degree. Even today, the only law that governs treatment of farm animals is the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958.
In this work I focus on the period prior to extensive railroad advancement onto the Great Plains and West and shipment via train of live animals or carcasses to slaughterhouses beyond – a period with practices that have received much needed and important scholarly attention.Footnote 4 This project requires a creative methodological engagement with historical sources that offer insights into animals’ lived experiences and thus the foundational, violent building blocks of the beef industry.Footnote 5
14.2 The Colonial Carceral Archipelago: Land and Law
In her Creatures of Empire (2004), Virginia Anderson details the important, agenic role of farm animals – especially cows and horses – in the North American colonial project. Anderson argues that animals were one of two “immigrant groups,” human and nonhuman, who were “central to the plot” of colonization. Though highly mobile under a free-range style of animal husbandry – the animals foraged and fed themselves, found their own shelter, transported themselves to new areas, and cared for their young – they not only altered whole ecosystems but were key to English colonists’ land claims and the “cause of permanence.”Footnote 6 Though they required little human labor, these animals required vast acreages for foraging – five-to-twenty acres per animalFootnote 7 – which quickly led to overgrazing, moving on to new lands, and ultimately complete appropriation and displacement of indigenous land and peoples (the carceral effect writ large). As such the animals functioned as what Specht calls a “technology” or “biotechnology” of conquest.Footnote 8 While authors such as Anderson focus primarily on the eastern colonies, similar colonial processes and increasing land acquisitions were in play in western cattle enterprises as well, if on a remarkably larger scale than the small-scale farming enterprises in the East.
Southern Texas as the epicenter of US cattle ranching and origin point of the cattle trails dates to the Spanish colonial period. The first bovine animals were shipped to North America by Spanish explorers and conquistadors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Fast forward to the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and Franciscan clergy had established more than fifty missions in what is now Texas, each with their own small herds. After Mexican independence in 1821 most clergymen refused loyalty to the Mexican government and abandoned their missions, with their animals free to run loose, allowing wild herds to flourish. Estimates are that 100,000 bovine animals roamed Texas by 1830. Three decades later, on the eve of the Civil War, that number had increased to an estimated 3.5–5 million.Footnote 9
The history of grazing “rights” on western land tells us a great deal about the evolution of the carceral landscape under study here, and can also tell us a great deal about the experiences of animals ensnared within it. In the boom years of the 1870s and 1880s, the cattle barons enjoyed “near hegemony” over western public lands by declaring a simple right of sovereignty. An informal code of entitlement, range rights if you will, was established if a rancher could claim to be the first to appropriate a local stream. The aspiring cattle grazer could, by claiming the water supply, control the surrounding terrain. Thus, the first step in consolidating power over the herds was in gaining control over grazing land – grass for food – and water. Richard White describes cattlemen as “the most prone to violence of any economic interest group in the West,” with their predilection for violence “largely result[ing] from the tenuousness of their own legal claims to the land.”Footnote 10 Legal ownership of the land was secondary to simply gaining access to it, and ranchers employed various means to graze animals on land to which they had no legal title. Most conflicts over land and grazing rights related to attempts to maintain an illegal monopoly on public-domain lands, and the ranchers’ preference was to physically drive out the competition rather than fight them in courts.
A number of scholars have shown how the “Wild West” get-rich schemes of turning public land and other resources into private ownership was largely unregulated, and cattlemen sought control over vast acreages mostly by simply claiming them, as well as through manipulation of federal law such as the Homestead Act of 1862. Land fraud of various flavors was used to create large blocks of real estate under a single title, and involved an intersection of war widows, children, and family members working together with land agents and local politicians. In the mid-nineteenth century, Texas was particularly ripe for land schemes due to overlapping and contested Mexican, Texan, and US sovereignty claims, but so were numerous other locations throughout the Plains and West. On such illegally acquired land, animals could be fed for free, guaranteeing an enormous profit margin at the point of sale north. Thus, part and parcel of the American colonial project was this type of land acquisition – the process of turning the public domain into private property – yet the General Land Office, a Bureau under the Secretary of the Treasury, was inefficient and ill-equipped to handle the highly complex machinations of surveying, selling, and registering of public lands. This was particularly the case when prior appropriation or “getting there first” bumped up against the complexity and overlapping nature of the 375 land laws passed by Congress from 1789 to 1834 – laws adjusting the size of lots for sale, shifting the price per acre, altering the requirements for payment, and granting rights of preemption in specific regions.Footnote 11 As Limerick argued, “first arrival” made the distinction between legitimate acquisition and theft a fine one. In both cases, the act was similar – one simply appropriated something for one’s own use – but, by a sometimes-subtle difference of timing, one act was honored and protected by law, and the other was punished. This would provide a basis for the carceral logic of the time and place.
As the railroads began to extend and connect to rural outposts in the Plains states, entrepreneurs in the new cow towns such as Abilene, Kansas, sought out Texas livestock trails to reach them, benefiting greatly from the new trade. The most-well-known of the western cattle trails ran from Texas northward to the state of Kansas, as herders drove millions of cows north from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1880s. From 1867 until 1871, the 1,000-mile-long Chisholm Trail was the main livestock trail from Texas, a trail that ran from San Antonio to Fort Worth, Texas, through Oklahoma and ended at Abilene.Footnote 12 An individual cowboy would oversee the movement of 245–350 animals, and they collectively drove 600,000–700,000 of them north from Texas during 1871 alone, all eventually bound for abattoirs in St. Louis and Chicago. These animals generally covered between ten and twelve miles per day on their three-month trek north to the rail link, becoming more “trail broke” as days and weeks wore on and thus becoming “easier to handle” – or to put another way, less able to resist their circumstances. Stock breeding and domestication always have the effect of “breaking” animals and thus reducing their potential for resisting their conditions, even if they also then appear to be colluding with or somehow collaborating with their oppressors.Footnote 13 In the case of the cattle trails, as cowboys needed to minimize the weight loss of their herds, they moved them slowly, pasturing them along the way.
They arrived at sites such as Abilene that were still relatively unpeopled, well watered, and offered plentiful grass for the incoming herds. The geography and carceral infrastructures that developed in Abilene and other towns would reflect their central nodal function in the developing cattle beef industry. These also collectively constituted what I call a colonial “carceral archipelago” of cattle trails and cattle towns. In using that term I am borrowing from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1978), wherein he argued that this island concept can be applied to a set of institutions, surveillance systems, and technologies that “discipline” and exert power and control over populations and indeed whole societies in a spatially ordered and universalizing way.Footnote 14
Importantly again, though, the Texas longhorns of the emergent beef industry were nearly wild, and thus their capture, movement, and enclosure, by fencing and other means, was an important piece of this historical carceral logic. At the time, acquiring physical control over herds was more efficacious for the cattlemen and cattle barons than seeking legal control over them. Those who were most successful at turning these animal lives into personal property simply rounded them up, claimed them, branded them, and enclosed them. Sometimes whole herds would be collected through rustling or “mavericking” (hunting and branding wild calves).Footnote 15 As the herds were gradually declared property of individual humans and commodities for capital accumulation, not only their status but their lives and experiences dramatically changed. While the animals’ status as property, much discussed among animal scholars, had a violent impact on their lives, it does not explain all the violence.Footnote 16 Violence toward animals occurs whether they are “owned” or not. Having particular status within the law would not have likely changed much about their treatment; despite certain protections for certain animals within the law, then and now, the lack of bovine animals’ legal “standing” simply made it easier to claim, buy, sell, and kill them.
14.3 The Carceral Infrastructure and Technological Developments
Infrastructural and technological developments at towns such as Abilene where bovine animals were corralled and then loaded onto railroad cars at the termini of the cattle trails also represent a singularly important carceral phenomenon of the nineteenth-century United States Innovations in transportation, specifically, the “cattle car” (and by 1869, the refrigerated car that hauled dead animal carcasses) was one of the most important technological developments that impacted and increased the trade in bovine animals, and indeed, that structured so much of their lived experience. It was primarily British companies that played a major role in developing the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s and 1880s – the foreign “cattle barons” – and who eventually also shipped refrigerated cow carcasses to Britain in ocean steamers. Railroad development actually included an array of ancillary infrastructural developments in the cow towns that impacted animal lives – railroad stations with telegraph facilities, supervisory personnel, and company-owned cow pens and stockyards.
One of the earliest and most successful Kansas entrepreneurs to link the cattle trails with the railroad, the dealer and town promotor Joseph McCoy built stock pens near the rail depot on 250 acres of land in Abilene, Kansas, to hold cows awaiting shipment north on the Kansas Pacific Railroad. The first twenty-car shipment of cows from Abilene to Chicago was in September of 1867. McCoy convinced the railroad to construct a rail siding for a cow pen at the Abilene depot, and then pay him a commission on every carload of animals shipped. This north-south cattle complex expanded in the 1870s, as the demand for beef, tallow, and hides greatly expanded amid postwar prosperity.Footnote 17
Concomitantly, one of the most significant instruments of violence and spatial control within the emergent bovine and other livestock industry of the time was the revolutionary invention of wire fencing, which facilitated the enclosure of public pasture land for private use. The traditional wooden fence of the East or Europe would not be feasible in a landscape lacking trees for lumber; large-scale fencing only became possible in this region with the invention of barbed wire. Netz argues for the critical importance of examination of this technology across species lines – and in the case of barbed wire, the violent enclosure and control of bovine animals during colonization of the American West.Footnote 18
Joseph Glidden patented barbed wire in 1874 and opened a small manufacturing plant in DeKalb, Illinois, for its production, with large-scale production and sale eventually located to Washburn and Moen Manufacturing in Worcester, Massachusetts. More than 350 barbed wire patents were issued between 1875 and 1890, although it was the Glidden patent that came to monopolize the market (and indeed, is the fence still in use today). The ideal barbed wire purportedly prevented injury to animals – or at least purportedly did not cause open wounds that would become infected – and aimed to increase a wire’s visibility to humans and animals alike (including horses). Marketing of the wire fence was an important piece of advancing this carceral technology, as were improvements in iron and steel production. Glidden’s patent (no. 157,124) is an interesting document of torture unto itself,Footnote 19 declaring that unlike other wires that seriously harmed animals, “the double, machine-twisted stand of galvanized steel wire, carrying four-pointed steel barbs … prick[s] smartly on contact and warning, but not wounding the animal.” This “perfect fence … borrowed from nature the principle of the sharp pricking thorn thus appealing to the sense of pain and danger that resides in the skin of the farm animal.” Many of the proposed wires caused too much injury and loss of animals; competition among wire makers thus focused on loss of one’s property value rather than concern for animal welfare or suffering. The barbs were intended to domesticate or “retame” by shock an entire breed of animals through such immediate painful impact,Footnote 20 but also ultimately served as an efficient biotechnology through which enclosed animals could be more easily bred, fed, and controlled.
One rather infamous early adopter in the Texas Panhandle, Charles Goodnight, fenced in over 3 million acres of public range with illegal fences while others followed suit, fencing land over which they had no legal claim.Footnote 21 Also in the Texas Panhandle, the Scottish-backed XIT ranch pursued its own 3 million acre fencing project, operating on a grant from the state with an estimated 6,000 miles of fence. Fencing provided greater control over animals for ranchers who had possession, if not the title, to large sections of land.
Such fraudulent or at best questionable fencing activities led to what has been called the “Fence Cutting Wars” in the early 1880s, which pitted such large cattle companies that had illegally fenced thousands of acres of public lands against the smaller scale “open range” ranchers – many of whom were former cowboys trying to eke a living from ranching – as well as pitting farmers against ranchers, the latter of whom argued that farmers should fence their crops to protect them from free-grazing animals. Widespread fence cutting ensued by the small-scale ranchers and farmers in 1883–84, with more than half of Texas counties reporting fence cutting and pasture burning, and episodes of violence including gunfights and deaths in places like Dodge City, Kansas. Local, state, and federal governments attempted to legislatively prevent fencing of public land. Many small farmers and ranchers wrote to the Secretary of the Interior angered by “unauthorized fencing” by cattlemen, with their letters presented to Congress in 1884. The letters explicate the extent of large-scale and fraudulent inclosures [sic] of public lands by stockmen, including entire counties in Kansas. As the then–Secretary of the Interior H. M. Teller wrote to Congress,
The cases mentioned in the reports and correspondence herewith submitted are to be regarded merely as indicative of the situation. I am satisfied from the information received that the practice of illegally inclosing the public lands is extensive throughout the grazing regions, and that many millions of acres are thus inclosed and are now being so inclosed to the exclusion of the stock of all others than the fence owners, and to the prevention of settlements and the obstruction of public travel and intercourse.Footnote 22
The US Congress finally passed a law in 1885 designed to prosecute anyone who attempted to fence public land for private use. The large British and American cattle companies suffered little repercussion from such legislation, however, and continued large-scale fencing unabated through manipulation of the Homestead Act (1862), the Timber Culture Act (1873), and the Desert Land Act (1887) throughout the Great Plains and West, which awarded land based ostensibly on building construction, planting trees, or installing irrigation (respectively), or they purchased land abutting the railroads and preempted the public lands next to them. Estimates are that up to 7.3 million acres of public land was fraudulently expropriated by cattle companies in this way in the 1870s and 1880s. The endgame of this system of “imprisonment” of cows via fences, of course, legally or illegally, was their eventual death in the northern slaughterhouses.Footnote 23
14.4 Centering Animal Experiences in the American Carceral Archipelago
Bovine animal experiences that began with their forced migration to North America in slings on Spanish sailing ships in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and ended with their boarding railroad cars bound for Chicago abattoirs in the nineteenth represent a singularly poignant historical example of how violence toward nonhuman animals with attendant pain and suffering is a basic ingredient – and outcome – of industries whose design is based on carceral logic.Footnote 24 Recent scholarship in critical animal studies offers helpful understandings of the lived experiences of captive animals on farms, in zoos, in research labs, and in other carceral spaces within which they undergo harmful processes and practices. Gillespie’s The Cow with Ear Tag #1389 (2018) offers an example of “witnessing” bovine social, emotional, and psychological responses to a number of carceral settings such as auction yards and dairy farms, as well as sites of refuge. But how might one engage such affective, visceral knowing in a historical context? A different or more expansive approach is needed to understand the experiences of historical animals, those long dead and no longer able to be directly “witnessed.” If we consider bovine animals as shapers of histories and geographies as Anderson suggests, we must entertain the notion of them as historical agents with lives, kinship relations, emotions, preferences, interests, and agency along with those of their human captors. Thus, an important question revolves around how to access animal experiences to try to understand the worlds – albeit colonial carceral worlds – that they cocreated with their human captors and for themselves. Many scholars of animal histories and historical geographies have demonstrated that this can be done and have modeled useful approaches.Footnote 25
Colonial and postcolonial scholars have taught us that the experiences of those heretofore silenced in the historical record or archive can be made accessible – indeed must be made accessible – and in much the same way that we understand the historical experience of any other “other” whose lives and stories were represented in archival, textual, photographic, and so forth, sources by someone else. Erica Fudge reminds us that past subjectivities, human and nonhuman, have always been difficult to access – that the archive is always already fraught as a representational tool. Both humans and nonhumans have been shaped by an archive not of their own making. As Fudge observes, humans can write anything about animals, whether “true” or “false,” but this applies to all history and any being written about: “these are problems of history in general and not specifically about the history of animals.”Footnote 26 It is important to keep in mind meanwhile that animal cultures, identities, experiences, and so on are not simply a function of species habits and characteristics: the spaces and places of their experiences, in the case here, within carceral contexts, is equally important. Different environments or communities will produce different kinds of animals and animal experiences and behaviors.Footnote 27 As always though, decentering our human, anthropocentric interpretations of animal perspectives and experience, of carceral or any other spaces, remains our collective challenge.Footnote 28
Obviously, animals express themselves. But as Buller argues, though we may not “share language with non-humans we do share embodied life and movement and, in doing so, different – yet both biologically and socially related – ways of inhabiting the world.”Footnote 29 But can we even imagine bovine animals creating life-worlds for themselves in nineteenth century western trails and towns? RoyleFootnote 30 argues that such animals have been so thoroughly objectified that to think of them as having any sort of life at all is almost unthinkable. What would it mean to discover historical bovine subjectivity – that of beings under intense external human control accompanied nonetheless by the everyday experiences of walking or running across pastures and streams, eating, resting, playing, fighting, caring for one another, procreating, and so on. The Finnish authors and editors of History according to Cattle (2015) offer a most provocative attempt to try to capture this embodied way of inhabiting the world for bovine animals, via the Museum of the History of Cattle exhibitions. To these authors, for example, the “cattle tongue is not a written language. In cattle culture, the tongue is a means of touching others.” Installations feature partial, blurry, shadowy images of light, objects, and landscape as well as intensely vibrant magnified images of other objects within close range such as “companion species” dress patterns and the veins on a leaf, all imaginings of bovine perspective.Footnote 31
Historians have typically relied on narrative mechanisms to understand animal pasts. Many refer to animals in historical narratives as “absent presences” – presences in the archive albeit ones who do not speak or control the narrative. Archival documentary sources and narratives produced by humans provide one access point to these lives – films, paintings, photographs, memoirs – even if they offer only traces of historical animals’ lived experiences. A poignant example we might easily return to is one seemingly innocuous but unforgettable scene in the Western film Red River, whose depiction of branding restrained animals – searing hot irons onto sizzling animal flesh – is gruesome in its realistic detail. And yet, the overall effect of this filming is wholly artificial and sanitized for a meat-eating postwar American audience; the real, live animals undergoing an undoubtedly painful procedure lie still and are portrayed as eliciting no reaction at all. When examining such representations we must think seriously about the extent to which human ideas about bovine animals were “invented” by certain actors whose purpose was to produce certain kinds of bodies and behaviors upon which to profit.
The second access point to past animal lives are historical-material artifacts that can speak to the kinds of bodily management practices and tools that cowboys and ranchers employed to capture and commodify animal lives – for example carceral apparatuses and practices such as barbed wire, stock pens, branding irons, and dehorning tools. Wilcox and RutherfordFootnote 32 observe that histories and memories are passed down through generations of animals in ways that humans cannot fathom. For scholars attempting to materially reconstruct past animal lives, though, little remains that testifies to these prior existences. Individual lives are erased by chemical, biological, and physical processes acting upon the landscape that wipe away identifiable traces, tracks, and remains. Cox illustrates how material objects in the archive, in her case, veterinary archives, are useful in writing the history of animals.Footnote 33 Cox interestingly found that such objects and instruments contained traces of fur, skin, and blood of real, deceased animals that can help formulate theories about emotional and psychological stress. These insights should prompt us to recategorize objects such as fences, branding irons, ropes, whips, and a myriad of restraining devices as important and relevant archival evidence, to human-animal interaction as well as animal-to-animal experience.
Examining samples of such instruments and artefacts of torture at museums such as at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, alongside “cinematographical” tricks of film production such as that of Red River against other photographic and artistic images of carceral practices, can help us begin to triangulate important understandings of animals’ lived experiences. As Fudge writes, “material and rhetorical are linked in their context, and the history that recognizes this can, in turn, force a reassessment of the material through its analysis of the rhetorical strategies of the written record.”Footnote 34
The Barbed Wire Study Collection located at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame museum offers a useful entreé into instruments of animal control and dominance – by the sheer volume of variously pointed and strung iron and steel devices – as well as evidence of how an individual might experience their use. As Netz writes, the “history of barbed wire took place precisely at the level of the flesh … the tool was created to control animals by inflicting pain on them … the simple and unchanging equation of flesh and iron.”Footnote 35 On display are 1,300 strands of barbed wire, among a collection of 8,000 strands, claimed to be the largest such collection in the world. The text accompanying this well-maintained and catalogued collection primarily emphasizes “advancements” in wire technology, belying the pain and trauma inflicted by its samples. Entanglements in wires, suffering open wounds derived from them (which led to insect infestation), and becoming stopped and trapped by fencing have been well documented by human observers. White details eyewitness accounts of impacts of wire fencing during dangerous weather events such as droughts and blizzards. One poignant example involved animals encountering and being stuck by the “drift fences” that the Texas Panhandle Cattlemen’s Association, working with large cattle companies in northern Texas, erected in the 1880s, intended to control the number of animals traveling south. Winter blizzards drove tens of thousands of animals south but the “drift fences” became “death traps” for perhaps two-thirds, who ran into them, piled up against them, and died by freezing or starving.Footnote 36
The National Cowboy Hall of Fame museum also features a Branding Exhibition, a special collection of branding irons and instruments used (and still used) to differentiate property claims made by various cattlemen by marking cow flesh with a hot, heavy iron poker, typically a symbol about four inches in height. While the collection primarily is focused on the historical evolution of brands and the various “styles” and symbols used by cattlemen, these instruments and accompanying wall text also offer a unique and indispensable insight into the painful procedure of burning a mark onto cow flesh. The “stamp irons,” some now corroded with age, were used to apply a mark in one impression. Wall text accompanying the irons recounts the branding process:
After calves were rounded up they were branded with the same brands and ear marks as their mothers … One man sat behind the calf and pulled the upper hind leg back onto his lap as he shoved the lower hind leg forward with his foot, hooking the calf’s leg with his boot heel. Another man placed his knee on the calf’s head and held the upper foreleg while removing the rope from its neck… The hot iron burned the hair and seared the hide deep enough to form a scab, which later peeled off to leave a scar where no hair would grow back … [Eventually] branding cattle in corrals and chutes reduced the number of men needed for the job. The modern use of squeeze chutes made branding and doctoring chores even easier … While calves are held for branding, other chores like castration, vaccination, and worming are usually done at the same time.
As human witnesses have recounted,Footnote 37 during this gruesome process “there is an acrid odor, strong, repulsive … [the animal] will go BAWR-R-R-R, its eyes will bulge alarmingly, its mouth will slaver, and its nose will snort.”
Both the barbed wire and branding iron museum artifacts force us to consider more nonrepresentational, emotional, affective approaches to the historical study of animal suffering: “visceral knowing.”
14.5 Concluding Comment
The nineteenth-century American cattle trails and cattle towns remain an integral piece of American legend and mythology, and though many scholars have made valuable interventions into the “reality” of the political, economic, environmental, and cultural factors that constituted the emergent cattle beef industry, much remains to be studied about animal experience in this story. It is a story of lived animal experiences of carceral spaces, developed within and facilitated by a range of legal or extralegal, technological, and political-economic carceral apparatuses. Certainly use of instruments of torture such as wire fencing and branding have not abated – although perhaps today’s cows are tattooed with identification numbers on their ears or lips or have computer chips inserted under their skin, and owners of the mass production of meat processing have become the twenty-first-century version of the cattle baron. But through study of available historical, especially material cultural, sources and evidence these lives ensnared within an American carceral archipelago can be understood and appreciated anew.
On November 25, 2019, the president of the United States signed the bipartisan Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT). Given the bill was unanimously supported by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it would seem incarceration is becoming the preferred solution to specific forms of abuse against certain animals. Prior to PACT, there was no US federal felony law prohibiting animal cruelty. PACT does “not apply to people who slaughter animals for food or to those who hunt, trap and fish,” nor does it apply to non-human animals threatening human life or property, subject to scientific experimentation, or under veterinary care.Footnote 1 Instead, it makes a federal crime the “crushing, burning, drowning, suffocating, impaling or sexual exploitation” of animals that would fall outside of state legal jurisdiction.Footnote 2 This broadens previous federal legislation prohibiting the sale of “crush videos” by criminalizing not just the sale but the actions these videos capture. It has been celebrated by animal protectionists as a reflection of “American values” and as a mechanism that will enhance the investigatory power of animal protection groups to “truly bring justice for the animals … by ensur[ing] some of the most horrific acts of animal cruelty are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”Footnote 3
If convicted under PACT, offenders can be fined or sentenced to a maximum of seven years in prison. Animal cruelty legislation in all fifty US states includes felony provisions. While what constitutes a “felony” varies across states, it often refers to sentences of incarceration that are more than twelve months and that can be served at either state or federal institutions. PACT is meant to allow for the prosecution of cases not captured by state law, such as those involving multiple state jurisdictions or occurring on federal grounds. The establishment of PACT could also result in more resources for the investigation and prosecution of violence against animals, thereby adding to available laws that drive incarceration. Animal protection groups have been instrumental in lobbying for the institution of new animal cruelty legislation and the strengthening of extant law.Footnote 4 Like the laws themselves, the supposed “justice”/”benefit” achieved would be almost explicitly limited to companion animals. As I argue in this chapter, these laws will not benefit animals writ large. Instead, such laws will bolster the intertwined logics of race and species that underpin the caging and incarceration of those categorized as sub-/non-humans.
In the Americas, race and species are inseparable. Indigenous theorists, Black studies scholars, and political theorists have argued that the making of race and animality have been integral to colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.Footnote 5 This does not mean that we ought to analogize between the experiences of racialized individuals and non-human animals, but to instead “focus on interspecies connectedness” as “the history of the animal and the Black in the black Atlantic is connected, rather than simply comparable.”Footnote 6 In this sense, race is “a permanent presence inextricably part of the animal question.”Footnote 7 In her work on race and animality, Claire Jean Kim shows that taxonomies of life rely on the subjugation of animality and blackness.Footnote 8 It is upon this mutual subjugation that “the human” is established. For Kim, “blackness is a species construct (meaning ‘in proximity to the animal’), and animalness is a racial construct (meaning ‘in proximity to the Black’), and the two are dynamically interconstituted all the way down.”Footnote 9 A clean separation between race and species is, according to Kim, impossible because their mutual constitution is foundational to how “the human” is ontologized: “the anti-black social order that props up the ‘human’ is also a zoological order, or what we might call a zoologo-racial order.”Footnote 10
In the Americas the prison is a colonial and racial project. Prior to colonization of what are now called the Americas, responses to harm did not include confinement or incarceration. Lisa Monchlin demonstrates that specific to “the Indigenous cultures of the northern hemisphere, no First Nations practiced methods of incarceration and no communities used holding cells for punishment.”Footnote 11 For Katherine McKittrick, the prison “twins” and continues the placelessness constituted by plantation slavery as it is a location of racialized spatial violence premised on “displacement, surveillance, and enforced slow death.”Footnote 12 Projects of colonialism also entail the intentional placelessness of nonhuman animals who remain targeted by violent and racialized geographies.Footnote 13 The prison remains a place of racialized and animalized encountersFootnote 14 that maintains the singularity of colonial rule.Footnote 15
Nonhuman animals are part of prison life in various manners: as food, as “pests,” as therapy and/or companion animals, as commodities in penal agricultural programs, and as those liminal to the grounds. Some examples include those used in prison rodeos,Footnote 16 in penitentiary agriculture,Footnote 17 and those who live with and amongst prisoners as “pests.”Footnote 18 Prison-animal programs (such as “puppy programs”) have also become popular in the United States and Canada since the late 1990s.Footnote 19
Animals who live on or near prison grounds have often had their habitats destroyed or irreparably altered by building the prison in the first place, and prisons are a source of ongoing environmental harm associated with their operation.Footnote 20
While animal cruelty laws are promoted on the basis that they “protect” animals, I argue that they, rather unwittingly, participate in and further promote harm to animals – harms that are enacted by the prison through its racialized logic of caging those deemed subhuman.Footnote 21 I do so by examining the prominent human-animal relationships produced in the context of incarceration: liminal animals, farmed animals who are prison property and industry, and animals used in rehabilitative/therapeutic programs. The examples that follow are by no means exhaustive, but they provide a précis of specific human-animal relationships occurring in Canadian and US prisons. It is then the case that in the bid to denounce animal cruelty, PACT and other legal mechanisms that drive incarceration also drive the forms of animal cruelty that remain culturally acceptable. Criminalization measures such as these find their footing in flawed notions of rehabilitation and justice. As this chapter shows, it is not possible for a prison to rehabilitate animal cruelty when it itself requires and practices animal cruelty.
15.2 Animals in Prison
15.2.1 Liminal Animals
The prison, like other human activities, can be a form of human encroachment into animal environments, destroying their habitats and/or polluting their sources of sustenance such that life is untenable.Footnote 22 While life becomes impossible for some animals because of the prison, others come to inhabit and/or access the prison. Examples include feral cats, pigeons, gulls, rabbits, rats, prairie dogs, and coyotes.Footnote 23 For these animals, it is a matter of opportunity and peril, with some targeted for eradication by the prison administration, whereas others are “adopted” and provided for by prisoners. Donaldson and Kymlicka define liminal animals as those who border divisions between the “domesticated” and “wild.”Footnote 24 While they live near or amongst humans, humans do not enforce ongoing and direct control over them as they do “farmed” animals or those who are “members” of our society such as companion animals. Liminal animals are better understood as ferals:
opportunistic animals and niche specialists … [who] may have adapted to urban and suburban environments when humans encroached on their wild territories, or they may have migrated opportunistically to cities and suburbs when they realized that these spaces offered steady means of sustenance and fewer predators.Footnote 25
While not domesticated, these animals and their future generations become dependent on human-made environments for their survival. Perhaps, it is then most apt to consider prison “pests” as liminal animals who enter the prison not because they are brought in by the administration, but who enter on their own volition to some degree, with a context of prison-building leaving them little other choice.
Calvin Smiley shows that in real life and as depicted in films, animals such as birds, mice, and rats feature as those with whom prisoners are in relationships of mutual care. Prisoners at Rikers Island have also identified and expressed solidarity with liminal canines in or around the prison grounds whom they indicate as similarly situated carceral subjects. Reflecting on his volunteer work, Smiley writes:
In the spring of 2019, while volunteering at Riker’s Island, I spotted a creature in the wooded-area next to the bridge onto the island. At first, I thought it was a dog, but quickly noticed this canine was not a household pet. Its grey markings, wolf-like face, big ears, and large paws indicated she was a wolf, coyote, or hybrid. I began to exclaim about what I was seeing but quickly muffled my voice when a correctional officer walked by. Yet, the officer had already seen my expressive face and remarked, “They are all around here.” When I got to the classroom, I told the participants what I witnessed. After class, a student told me that he knew which “wolf-dog” I was describing as his work detail brought him outside the jail to clean up trash in the area. He told me that he would occasionally smuggle small pieces of bread to leave behind for her and her pups. When I asked if he was ever afraid, he shook his head and said, “Nah that’s the homie.”Footnote 26
Contra to Smiley’s positive reflections on liminal animals in prison settings, Moran writes that those often categorized “pests,” such as insects, rats, and mice, remain both abject – categorized as undesirable to share space with. While abject they are still revered as “formidable adversaries” against whom prisoners go to great lengths to prevent from entering their cells.Footnote 27 Because of this orchestrated antagonism, prisoners attribute some degree of subjectivity to pests such as cockroaches.Footnote 28 The presence of these abject animals, especially when their presence is categorized as an “infestation,” is used to demarcate inhumane conditions of confinement, with some courts finding this to constitute cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the US Constitution.Footnote 29 With their habitats destroyed or altered by the presence of the prison, the prison then provides a stable supply of sustenance for liminal animals, bringing them into relationships of survival, danger, and/or companionship with the prison and prisoners. Liminal animals, while certainly effected and/or targeted for extermination by the prison to various extents, are not subject to the same constraints, targeted transformations, or disavowal of subjectivity as those whose legal status is property. It is to non-human animals specifically brought in for prison industry – animals that are intentionally targeted and transformed by the prison – that this chapter now turns.
15.2.2 Animals as Prison Industry and Property: Deaded Life
As a carceral institution in and of itself, animal agriculture requires and reproduces the property status of farmed animals. This property status leads to farmed animals being conceptually positioned as “deaded life”: as those who in life are imagined only as the products they will be become in death. Often this takes the form of their being reduced to input-output machines. As deaded life they exist as “living meat,” “egg machines,” “milk machines,” and the like.Footnote 30 In agribusiness modes of production, nonhuman animals are “both producing or being produced as commodities.”Footnote 31 Morin argues that the prison exacts a specific form of property relationship over humans, too. Drawing on the fact that plantation grounds are now prison grounds, as well as the fact that slavery remains legal as a form of punishment under the Thirteenth Amendment, Morin claims that “if the prison is more or less tantamount to the plantation, and the prisoner is tantamount to the slave, the prisoner also can be thought of as the de facto property of the state.”Footnote 32 What then does it mean to have prisoners working in animal agriculture as mandated by the state? How can we understand the overlapping yet divergent forms of carcerality and property at work in these interstices? I suggest that prison-based animal agriculture is best understood as a location that produces ontologies of life, such as the human and the animal, to serve the ends of profit and settler colonial territorialization. It does so by continually using land and animals in a way that perpetuates the colonial project of settling the new world in the image of the old.Footnote 33 Prison-based animal agribusiness is rendered possible due to its capacity for trafficking in a pastoral idealism. These enterprises purport that access to “nature” will reform the offender and train individuals for the market economy. These claims lack empirical evidence.Footnote 34 Instead, penal agribusinesses continue settler-colonial and plantation-slavery projects, in which the subjugation of blackness, indigeneity, and animality have been integral and mutually produced.
Morin argues that these subjugations remain integral to the exploitation of prisoner and animal labour, especially in the location of the prison animal farm:
The carceral logic of prisoners as animal – or prisoners as “Blackened” which itself begets animalization – further enables their enslavement within the prison. Exploitation of labour (and killing itself) within the prison is enabled by animalizing the human and “isolating the nonhuman within the human,” since animal bodies can be exploited and killed without the commission of a crime. Humanness, then, is made a political, conceptual category rather than a biological fact.Footnote 35
15.2.3 Prison Agribusiness in Canada
Canadian penitentiary agribusiness predates confederation in 1867 and was present in all institutions for men until 2010. These programs closed after ceasing to be profitable. There was also a dearth of evidence suggesting this “vocational training” resulted in commensurable employment once prisoners were released.Footnote 36 Their operations entailed meat, dairying, and egg industries, including having prisoners work in abattoirs. While carceral agribusiness programs in Canada stopped in 2010, the Joyceville Institution in the Kingston, Ontario, area kept their abattoir. Named Wallace Beef, this abattoir is part of a “co-venture” in that it is privately owned by an individual and staffed by CORCAN. CORCAN is the federal prison industry “rehabilitation” program. Following the announcement that penal agribusiness would cease to operate, community members – especially farmers – campaigned for their continuation. They were immediately successful in having the slaughterhouse remain operational, claiming the Correctional Service of Canada had “recognized the importance of the abattoir to the local community and the local food system and in terms of what they needed to satisfy public safety and inmate training.”Footnote 37 The local community to which they refer includes the “150 local farmers, [and] 300 local businesses including the prisons” who contract their slaughter to Wallace Beef via CORCAN.Footnote 38 As of 2017, prisoners employed by CORCAN were paid approximately $1.95 per day after deductions. Between the years of 1993 and 2017, CORCAN operated at a loss of 66% during these fiscal years. Its programming/“training” has been found to have no impact on recidivism rates.Footnote 39
A collective of community members in favour of animal-based prison agriculture, “Save Our Prison Farms,” continues to campaign for the re-opening of animal farms on penitentiary grounds, which have begun to re-open in two penitentiaries for men in the Kingston, Ontario, area. Smaller-scale cow dairy operations have resumed, with planning ongoing for large-scale goat dairies to supply a growing demand in China.Footnote 40 Again, these farms are a CORCAN venture and will also include the slaughtering and butchering of male animals not “useful” to dairying.Footnote 41 These organizers repeatedly mobilized a rhetoric of community safety and that prisoners would build empathy. Their campaigns included improperly cited academic research in an effort to boast purported benefits to prisoners who are given the opportunity to work in animal agriculture. The literature cited was in fact about the benefits of prison-animal programs such as puppy and dog training and was explicit that these findings not be applied to animal agriculture given the very different dynamics and outcomes occurring in these relationships.Footnote 42 The majority of prisoners surveyed by another community-based group – Evolve Our Prison Farms, who advocate for plant-based agriculture and animal sanctuaries rather than animal agriculture – reported a preference (75%) for the former.Footnote 43 Prisoners have described that working in animal-agriculture is re-traumatizing, involves dangerous working conditions, and that animal abuse is ubiquitous.Footnote 44 Prisoners have also reported that they cannot meaningfully refuse to work as this is often met with threats to be sent to solitary confinement because such a refusal would represent disobeying their correctional plan. In obeying the prison’s demand for performing agricultural labour, prisoners are more likely to be seen as engaging their “rehabilitation” plan and are more likely to cascade down to lower-security facilities and/or be granted parole.Footnote 45
15.2.4 Prison Agribusiness in the United States
Based on available data, US penal agribusiness appears to be ubiquitous and is likely increasing.Footnote 46 US agriculture relies on migrant and undocumented labour, and it is likely that, of the 1.2 million agriculture workers in the United States, 70% are undocumented.Footnote 47 Recent anti-immigration policies have decreased the available labour supply, meaning that another pool of vulnerable individuals will be used to support this industry: prisoners. Doing so remains the latest iteration of using prisoner labour to support dominant interests. During US Reconstruction – and especially in the South – convict leasing was instituted to bolster economies that were built on slave labour and to maintain Black subjugation. Ultimately, convict labour was a mechanism to maintain white supremacy; laws were instituted to ensure Black persons were criminalized and therefore legally available to be commercially exploited by the state and the white capitalists who leased these prisoners for their companies. By the late 1800s, convict leasing was so profitable that some states garnered revenues that were 400% of the operational cost of the prison system. Unsurprisingly, convict labour was deeply racialized. During a period of mass incarceration between 1870 and 1910, close to 90% of those leased in Georgia were Black individuals.Footnote 48
Concerns of convict leasing undercutting the open market, coupled with the economic depression of the 1930s, led to the passing of laws prohibiting leasing programs as well as the sale of prison-manufactured goods. This did not stop prison systems from requiring prisoners to labour in agriculture. Instead, it meant that the food produced by prisoners could only be used by the prison or state workers. This would last until the late 1970s, when foreign manufacturing threatened US domestic markets and agricultural industries again sought cheap domestic labour. Again, lobbyists campaigned for legal changes which, yet again, allowed private companies to hire prisoners. Prisoners were mostly used in manufacturing and service sectors. At this time, agriculture continued to rely on migrant workers. During the fifty years following the re-establishment of convict leasing, the imprisonment of Black persons has quadrupled.Footnote 49
Comprehensive accounts of penal agribusiness are not available. The following discussion includes examples reported by investigative journalists, correctional administrations, non-profit organizations, and academic researchers. Some reports estimate that approximately 30,000 prisoners in the United States work in the food system. Heal Food Alliance, for example, reports that forty-six states have prison-based agriculture, with 20% of states having large-scale agricultural operations.Footnote 50 The majority of prison agricultural labour is state administered (~76%), with industry-run operations representing approximately 21%.Footnote 51 State-run examples include the sale of prison-produced products at market prices. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is built on the grounds of the Angola Plantation, prisoners perform agricultural labor, which entails the hand-cultivation of plant crops and the raising of 2,000 steers who will be consumed as beef. They are paid between four and twenty cents per hour.Footnote 52 Industry-run examples include the Arizona Corrections Industry having a labour contract worth $5 million with Hickman’s Family Farms, the United States’ fourth-largest egg producer.Footnote 53
At present, convict leasing remains very lucrative and increasingly relied on by agricultural industries. During their 2015–16 fiscal year, for example, the California prison industry state system’s agriculture and food sector posted a $2 million profit.Footnote 54 Courts have ruled that prisoners are not employees and therefore cannot organize for better pay or working conditions. Nor are prisoners protected by various labour laws, including minimum wage requirements, making them “leasable” at very low rates. To compare, note that, in Arizona, the minimum wage for farm workers is $11 per hour. Meanwhile, Arizona Correctional Industries pays prisoner agricultural labourers $3–4 per hour. Most prisoners’ wages are subject to deductions that “offset” the costs of incarceration or go toward victim restitution. Others receive no remuneration.Footnote 55 Research has shown that across all US states, “Black men represented the highest percentage of men participating in agriculture and facility service assignments, while a higher percentage of White men worked in public works and prison industries.”Footnote 56 Men imprisoned in the southern states are also more likely to be assigned to agricultural labour than other sectors, and are less likely to be paid. Not only does prison agriculture generate profits for the prison, it also is a cost-saving measure as it produces food for the prison itself – a practice that in effect sustains and makes the prison viable.Footnote 57 This broader context of convict leasing, anti-immigration policies, and the ongoing use of penal labour as a mechanism of racial organization then situates and informs prison-based animal agriculture. Because I was unable to find a comprehensive account of federal- and state-based penitentiary agribusiness programs, I focus on a few state prison systems as examples of the scale and breadth of prison-based animal agriculture.
The Colorado Department of Corrections currently runs a diverse agribusiness program as part of sixty programs run by Colorado Correctional Industries (CCi).Footnote 58 The agribusiness program began in 1874, and CCi claims “farming [continues to] help…address inmate idleness, provided food products for the prison and was a means of generating revenue from surplus crops sold to outside markets.”Footnote 59 Agribusiness now spans three areas – farming, fisheries, and vineyards – that comprise twenty programs that depend on the labour of approximately 800 prisoners. Framed as honouring the department’s “heritage,” farming programs occupy 560 acres across eight Colorado state prisons. Of this, 30 acres are used to grow vegetables for state prisons, whereas the remaining 530 acres grow corn used by CCi dairying operations. This breakdown of land use demonstrates the staggering inefficiency of growing plant-based foods to supply animal-based food markets. Information on CCi dairying, however, is not provided on the website. They do not indicate whether dairy products supply prison and/or external markets, nor do they mention what happens to the male cows not useful to dairying. Despite limited information on their website, journalists in 2015, for example, reported that some prisoners in Colorado were working for agricultural companies that supplied Whole Foods with buffalo mozzarella, goat cheese, and tilapia. Prisoners were paid $1.50 per hour.Footnote 60 Following media attention, Whole Foods announced that it would cease selling products made using prisoner labour.Footnote 61
CCi has industrially farmed fish for decades, with their brochure promoting this as “netting marketable skills.”Footnote 62 CCi advertises that “Fish Rearing continues to be one of our most successful programs.”Footnote 63 This program supplies pond industries with live koi and goldfish. They also rear trout, tilapia, catfish, and freshwater red claw lobster for the food industry. For example, their trout production process “holds an average of 135,000 gallons of pure Rocky Mountain spring water…with a maximum of 115,000–130,000 fish swimming in a rearing unit.”Footnote 64 CCi claims that this constitutes a “stress free existence” for the fish and is an environmentally responsible approach as they “recycle fish waste and repurpose the water throughout our numerous agricultural programs.”Footnote 65 Fish are referred to in much the same way as farmed land animals – desubjectified property imagined as the commodity they will become when killed. References to “fish husbandry and processing,” “humane handling,” and “meat retaining its natural colour” demonstrate that these aquatic animals are subject to the carcerality of agriculture and property law in which they are deemed prison property.Footnote 66
In Pennsylvania, animal agriculture occurs in both federal and state institutions. At the federal USP-Lewisburg, prisoners farm “poultry, dairy cattle, hay, corn, clover, soybeans, alfalfa, sorghum and potatoes.”Footnote 67 While federal prison industries claim to “provide meaningful work for inmates,”Footnote 68 merely 10% of those able to work did so and were paid between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour. The state correctional industry – PCI – branded as “Big House Products,” also entails slaughterhouse labour. Morin analyzed a 2005 audit of PCI operations and found that during that year approximately 1,600 prisoners (3.9%) of its 41,000-person prison population were assigned to this program while being paid $0.59 per hour.Footnote 69 PCI industries include the manufacturing of licence plates, workboots, laundry services, and the “process[ing of] 4.1 million pounds of beef, pork, turkey, and fish.”Footnote 70 While prison labour is ubiquitously marketed as a way to decrease idleness, provide income, and aid in re-entry, the 2005 audit concluded that this program was “a phenomenal waste of taxpayer dollars, and [contained] evidence that the programs had no impact whatsoever on prison recidivism despite aims to instill skills and a work ethic in prisoners.”Footnote 71
The state of Texas too has a robust and profitable agribusiness program.Footnote 72 The Texas Department of Public Safety reported:
About 10,000 inmates work in the system’s agriculture jobs which last year produced almost $50 million worth of edible crops, livestock and cotton for the prison system on 139,000 acres of farm and ranch land. Prison units that don’t have enough land to be in the agricultural program still produce several million pounds of fresh vegetables each year to donate to local food banks for the needy.Footnote 73
The kinds of foods produced by prison labour shape prison diets. The Texas Department of Public Safety further described:
Most meals consist of ground beef dishes, chicken, or pork. The ground beef is bought with proceeds from the sale of prison-raised cattle. Although the prisons have more than 250,000 hens, they are used only for egg production. It is less expensive to buy chicken meat at market. The system raises and serves its own pork products.Footnote 74
Farmed animal products are the commodities produced and sold by the prison, and it is this profit that the prison then uses to purchase more animal-based foods. Prison industries and diets can be understood as largely prescribing specific relationships between humans and other animals. Quite literally, the prison sustains itself on the backs of prisoners and nonhuman animals.
Currently incarcerated activist and investigative journalist Keith “Malik” Washington has described the abuse suffered by farmed animals in Texan prisons and its attendant detrimental impact. He writes that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has consistently refused to allow or institute the independent oversight of “these prison plantations” as it is to their benefit to remain “immune to any oversight of any regulatory agency.”Footnote 75 Washington recounts having a visceral reaction to how farmed animals are treated and to the scale of the operations:
I smelled the large hen warehouse before we actually got right up on it … Hens were packed like sardines. Underneath the cages were virtual mountains of bird feces… The cages are so small, hens cannot turn around or spread their wings. Our job was to remove the fecal matter. The smell of ammonia was very strong. Some birds I noticed had burns on their feet and legs, this from being housed in filth.Footnote 76
The TDCJ does not even meet the minimal spatial requirements that exist for chickens: half a square foot per bird. Washington reports that the prison puts two to three birds in spaces prescribed for one. Like animal agriculture operations outside of prison walls, prison agriculture also considers it more efficient to have its animals routinely die than it is to improve conditions and treatment. Washington confirms this by writing that “many birds at Wynne die of asphyxiation and dehydration. Decomposing corpses are found in cages with live birds every day.”Footnote 77
At another Texan institution in which Washington was imprisoned, the Coffield Unit, a prison for men in Tennessee Colony, there are three large units where hog and cattle rearing take place alongside slaughterhouse labour. Washington reports that the scale of these operations has affected the surrounding environment, with runoff polluting nearby rivers and lakes and contaminating the prison’s water supply. In one of the units in particular, Washington reports that significant levels of coliform bacteria were regularly present in water that prisoners had to drink because there were no alternative sources. At Eastham, a prison for men in Lovelady, Texas, Washington describes a massive egg-laying operation where hens lay “80,000 eggs per week. It is a 24-hour-a-day operation, the lights never go out.”Footnote 78 This operation generates approximately $100,000 a week for the TDCJ. Another unit at Eastham routinely houses 3,000 hogs and 600 sows, in addition to selling 21 piglets a week. Washington aptly highlights the prison’s financial interest in its “livestock.” Whereas air-conditioning is rare in Texas prisons and where heat-related prisoner deaths are not uncommon, the TDCJ has invested “$175,000 for a cooling system for the pigs. The pigs are being preserved for slaughter so TDCJ can benefit. TDCJ does not have any concern for animal rights or human rights. Its main focus is profits by any means.”Footnote 79
Inasmuch as Washington describes deplorable and dangerous working conditions in prison animal agriculture, the state has been explicit that prisoner refusal in labour will be met with “cell confinement,” the conditions of which exceed international legal definitions of solitary confinement. The Department writes:
Offenders who refuse to work lose their privileges and are placed on “cell restriction.” Cell restriction means remaining in the cell 24 hours a day, with no trips to the day room, commissary, or recreation yard. Meals are also eaten in the cell. Personal property is taken away.Footnote 80
Generally, solitary confinement entails being in-cell for twenty-two hours or more a day and without meaningful interaction. Solitary confinement can meet the threshold for torture if mitigation efforts – such as personal belongings, access to current events, the ability to exercise, and the like – are not provided.Footnote 81 To refuse to labour for the prison is then to face conditions of confinement that can cause irreversible psychological and physical impacts. Effects (aka “SHU syndrome”) include the development of mental illness, uncontrollable anger, pacing, dissociation, violence to the self and others, anxiety when in the presence of others, back pain, and the decreased effectiveness of psychotropic medications.Footnote 82 A Canadian court has accepted the effects of solitary as a matter of judicial notice. In other words, expert witnesses should no longer have to testify as to the harms of segregation; it being a matter of judicial notice means that it is so widely known to be true that a court does not need to adduce evidence on the matter.Footnote 83
We might then say that prison labour is irrevocably transformative regardless of whether prisoners “participate” or not. Prisoners are required to act upon animals in a manner that transforms the animals, but which also subjects prisoners to the detrimental psychological effects of violent work.Footnote 84 If they refuse to work, they are in turn subjected to extremely repressive conditions of confinement.
The transformation of carceral subjects is perhaps the core tenet of human-animal relations in these spaces. As Morin writes:
What happens in the space can never be undone, the subject can never be transformed back … [I]f the carceral space does not kill – e.g., transforming a sentient being to a commodity such as a piece of meat or lab specimen – the action performed within carceral space will nonetheless change the subject, transforming a wild creature to a domesticated or rescued animal.Footnote 85
Specific to prison farm animals, their entire lives will be spent in prison for them to be transformed into food. There are other animals, however, such as those brought in for training purposes who will spend only part of their lives in the prison. It is to the latter mechanics of transformation to which I turn next.
15.2.5 Rehabilitated Animals as Lively Communities
Many animals are temporary “guests” of the prison.Footnote 86 Those brought into the prison for spectacle, such as prison rodeos, are selected because of their “liveliness.” Morin argues that Collard’s concept of “lively commodities” describes the “value” of prison rodeo animals.Footnote 87 It is their liveliness that at once presents a physical threat to participating prisoners and it is this liveliness that is to be dominated as the very point of the rodeo. In this case, their “active demonstrations of being full of life – their labor – is more important to their value than even their sentience.”Footnote 88 Other temporary “guest” animals include those brought into the prison for Prison Animal Programs (PAPs). To make claims about the possibility of rehabilitation, the prison requires the undisciplined “liveliness” of “untrained” dogs and “wild” horses in order to intervene and transform them into acceptable workers and companions. It is this aspect of their liveliness that makes them valuable to the prison. I suggest that animals subjected to “rehabilitation” in prisons be thought of as “lively commodities” who, with prisoners, are to be transformed into pro-social creatures. The commodity relationship is also important as their transformation (“training”) by prisoners and eventual adoption or sale generates income for the prison. Moreover, prisoners are ideal and cheap trainers given prison schedules provide long periods of unstructured time.Footnote 89
Beginning in the 1980s, PAPs have become increasingly widespread in prison settings. The majority are dog training programs, but PAPs also include cat care and wild horse training. Dog programs now exist across the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Italy.Footnote 90 Overwhelmingly, the literature on PAPs does not question the ethics of animal captivity or instrumentalization. Instead, through discourses of mutual saviour/rehabilitation, administrations position these as benevolent endeavours for all parties. At the same time, PAPs operate within a broader context in which nations have used non-human animals in various projects of social control. The use of bloodhounds in slave patrols for tracking fugitive slaves has transmuted into the continued use of police dogs as tools of racial subjugation.Footnote 91 Some police dogs are trained by prisoners. For example, the Pelican Bay State Prison in California – an institution notorious for its extremely repressive supermax unit where prisoners are held in solitary confinement for years with zero human contact, no phone calls, and in windowless cells – also has a prison dog training program. This program trains canines to become police attack dogs.Footnote 92 Dogs “working” for the prison are also used to track and hunt escaped prisoners, many of whom attempt to flee prisons located on former plantation grounds. On the basis of rehabilitation, dogs, who are themselves incarcerated, are trained and deployed to keep those who are legally enslaved on former plantation grounds. The use of dogs in PAPs then carries a particular historical significance that remains unaddressed by those in favour of such programs.Footnote 93 For the purposes of this chapter, I focus on Colorado’s dog training and wild horse programs, which I supplement with research from other jurisdictions.
The Colorado Department of Corrections began their “Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program” in 2002. Their website describes it “as a perfect marriage of ideas – saving humans through saving dogs.”Footnote 94 As a result of participating, prisoners are meant to acquire skills, self-esteem, compassion, caregiving, and a salary. Prisoners can also become certified in Canine Behaviour Modification, thereby expanding their vocational opportunities once released. The puppies and dogs come from shelters, rescues, and individual surrenders. The dogs subject to such programs are said to “get a new ‘leash on life’” as they are transformed into “wonderfully trained family pets and many move on to become very sophisticated assistance dogs which perform a variety of tasks for their human partners.”Footnote 95 Services provided through this canine program include in-prison boarding, adoption and alumni training should dogs need re-correction. The CCi is explicit that this program is self-sustaining based on its fees and does not rely on taxpayer monies. Photos of adoptable dogs on the program’s website feature a blue backdrop speckled with pawprints; the dog’s name is followed by “CI: [number].” The staging and composition of the photos reference mugshots, and “CI” presumably refers to “Colorado Inmate.” One can infer that these dogs too are Colorado Inmates, reformed by the prison and ready for pro-social re-entry into the broader community.
CCi’s description is consistent with most of the literature that frames prison dog programs as a form of “co-rehabilitation.” The purported benefits of PAPs – which are largely anecdotal – include improved institutional behaviour and engagement in therapeutic programs, lower rates of depression and aggression amongst prisoners, increased morale amongst prisoners and staff, improved self-reported social skills, and lower rates of re-offending upon release.Footnote 96 Prisoner participants have also reported that their participation is a way for them to contribute to society.Footnote 97 Others have suggested that interacting with animals in programs such as these provides support and validation that prisoners require to transform themselves into law-abiding citizens.Footnote 98 I would caution, however, that this presumes that offending is merely the result of individual behaviour rather than broader structures of inequality and marginalization. Moran observes that like animal assisted therapy programs (AATs), in PAPs “the animal is present purely for the therapeutic benefit of the human involved, and which draw on the observed physical and emotional benefits for humans of interactions with animals.”Footnote 99 In this sense, animals function as “devices through which to enable positive change in the inmates.”Footnote 100 Unlike AATs, however, PAPs are framed as having distinct community benefits, whether these be the training of service dogs for drug and explosives detection, or to assist those experiencing disability.
Some argue that, because humans and canines domesticated one another, prison dogs might not experience incarceration negatively. Moran, for example, suggests that dogs in PAPs “may experience prison programming in much the same way as domestic dogs experience being family pets, benefitting from human company and engaging in the kind of kinesthetic empathy widely observed amongst companion dogs.”Footnote 101 Does this then mean that these programs constitute ethical human-animal relationships? Alexandra Horowitz argues that domestication is foundational to the species of canis familiaris. Put simply, there are no true “wild” dogs because the evolution of their species has meant that humans and other dogs are part of their social groups. According to Horowitz, freedom for dogs does not simply equate to freedom from humans.Footnote 102 Instead, Horowitz suggests that our obligation to this species is to provide the conditions in which they can be the freest and flourish. In practice, this may ask that humans respect their “dogness,”Footnote 103 rather than trying to train it out of them due to its transgression of our human expectations around “civility.” Allowing dogs to be entirely themselves would require an ethical approach that has as its goal that humans impose their cultures onto dogs as little as possible. It is then worth asking to what extent training programs such as these are the imposition of human culture. Do such programs support the flourishing of dogs or represent their ongoing subordination to human norms? Do these programs – designed to transform wayward dogs into perfect family pets, service dogs, and “carceral canines”Footnote 104 – not then represent the epitome of the application of human culture to nonhuman others? PAPs also raise the question about the trauma that is experienced when dogs are separated from their prisoner handlers as the dogs are adopted. Within a foundationally speciesist society, it is also the case that these are dogs who might otherwise be destroyed if not part of these programs. This is a tension and reality upon which these programs are founded and highlight to promote and sustain themselves.
Both New Mexico and Colorado state Departments of Corrections began “wild horse” programs in the late 1980s. New Mexico’s program ran from 1988 to 1992. While prisoners and staff reported this program to be successful in decreasing recidivism and institutional misconduct, especially amongst prisoners deemed to be violent offenders and/or those who were simultaneously participating in substance abuse programming, empirical evidence does not support all of these claims. Specifically, the relationship between the program and recidivism is inconclusive.Footnote 105 Colorado’s Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) was established in 1986 as a partnership between CCi and the Bureau of Land Management.Footnote 106 Up to 3,000 horses can be housed at a time at the facility located in Canon City, Colorado,Footnote 107 an isolated town that is also home to thirteen prisons. In true colonial fashion, the promotion of this program adopts iconic symbols of pastoral life and a toughened frontier spirit of cowboys. The marketing of WHIP uses a narrative trifecta dependent on the relationship between mustang horses, frontier masculinity, and settler colonialism. CCi writes:
Mustangs played a vital role in the settling of our American West. These noble creatures carried cowboys up the Chisholm Trail, mountain men through the Tetons, trappers into Oregon, native Americans into buffalo hunts and settlers from the east coast to the west. Today these mustangs are helping troubled men make a new beginning with an old craft – horse training.Footnote 108
In his description of WHIP, former commissioner of the Colorado Department of Corrections Rick Raemish gestures to their “new” role in sustaining the prison:Footnote 109 “today these intelligent, loyal creatures continue to forge new beginnings, playing an important role in inmate rehabilitation.”Footnote 110 Despite the prison’s explicit failure to rehabilitate,Footnote 111 the institution continues to traffic in rehabilitative rhetoric to justify its existence. Wild horses are then captured and transformed by prisons in the name of rehabilitation, a practice that occurs within a broader context of ideologically and economically sustaining the prison and the racial relations it produces.
More than 5,000 horses have been adopted to “qualified applicants” through this program. Like the canine programs, both prisoners and horses are positioned as those given “second chances” through these programs. The horses are trained over a period of 90 daysFootnote 112 and prisoners receive 200 hours of “on-the-job training” that allows them to “develop a good work ethic, animal husbandry skills, and respect – creating a better future for themselves and the mustangs.”Footnote 113 Seven to ten horses are trained on a monthly basis. The rationale as to why “wild” horses require second chances and training is not explained. Mustangs, the quintessential symbol of free-living horses, become carceral subjects and are then “rehabilitated” and adopted out for personal and state use. Some horses are trained and adopted to trail riders, while a proportion of younger horses are reserved and trained for the US Border Patrol,Footnote 114 again, highlighting the link between the prison, prison animals, and state repression. Whereas dogs might not experience their time in prison as such, previously free-living horses “may be subject to a kind of double or two-fold carcerality.”Footnote 115 In the case of free-living horses, it is likely the case that “‘multispecies justice’ might be found in distance rather than proximity and intimacy.”Footnote 116
It is a gruesome irony that incarceration is positioned both by lawmakers and the animal protection movement as a mechanism to achieve justice for non-human animals. The prison as structure harms surrounding waters, lands, and ecosystems, often making life impossible for the more-than-human displaced and affected by its presence. More directly, as this chapter has shown, the prison also structures human-animal relationships: between prisoners and liminal animals, in animal agriculture, and in community service training programs. Liminal animals are not targeted for transformation in the way that those in animal agriculture and PAPs are. While they might, to some degree, enter and exit prison grounds on their own accord, some are targetted for extermination, while others are in relationships of mutual care with human prisoners. Farmed animals in prisons are produced as deaded life, whereas those present in training programs are valuable as lively commodities. Both are used as props from which the prison sustains itself materially and makes (empirically unfounded) claims about its ability to rehabilitate. Because the prison always entails multi-species relationships, it is not the case that criminalizing animal abuse will protect animals. At best, it will protect some animals while redirecting violence to farmed animals in prisons. At worst, it will bolster the prison’s colonial and anti-black function and perpetuate harm to communities.
The prison also serves an ideological function; it animalizes captives who are often constructed as extra-bodily in their dangerousness – as animals who cannot be controlled otherwise and thus require caging.Footnote 117 Yet, ontology and power are not unidirectional. It is not just that we understand the human and the animal in a way that authorizes various treatments, but that these ontological orderings are justified and remade through our witnessing of caged prisoners and other animals.Footnote 118 The prison’s continued existence, in part, relies on our racialized and speciesized acceptance of cages and the evisceration of life – purposefully and collaterally – that the prison requires and produces. Animal cruelty will only be meaningfully addressed through anti- and de-carceral strategies that take a multi-species approach – strategies which are are better positioned to decrease harm while protecting and benefiting humans, animals, and the environment.
Josh Harper is a long-time animal liberation activist and former political prisoner who became a national figure in the movement when he was sentenced to prison for three years on “animal enterprise terrorism” charges related to his support of a direct-action campaign focused on the notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) animal testing lab. The organization he worked with was called Stop Huntingdon Life Sciences or SHAC, and Harper was one of several activists – known as the SHAC7 – sent to prison for their involvement in this effort. The campaign was ambitious, bold, creative, and highly impactful. The aim was to shut down HLS, which was one of the largest animal testing contract services in the world and had been accused of animal cruelty and multiple violations of animal welfare laws in the United States and Britain. In addition to directly targeting HLS, the SHAC campaign also focused on businesses that supplied HLS with key resources, and further singled out those businesses that contracted with HLS’s suppliers in what activists refer to as primary, secondary, and tertiary targeting. Specifically, any business in HLS’s network of clients was pressured to cancel those contracts or face relentless public protests, including actions outside the homes of directors and employees. This series of tactics supported a strategy of starving HLS of the resources it needed to survive, and SHAC successfully persuaded scores of companies to cut ties with the laboratory. When the campaign’s victory seemed imminent, UK and US governmental authorities stepped in to to provide emergency financial support for HLS and to bring the full power of state repression down on the advocacy campaign. Josh Harper paid for his activism with a three-year prison term. Harper’s time on the inside was difficult, beginning with dietary concerns:
When I was sentenced to prison, one of the things that was very, very important to me was that I didn’t want to let it change who I was to the degree that I was able. I definitely wanted to be in the sort of position where I wasn’t going to let the state force me to consume the products of the animals who I was trying to defend to begin with. I’d heard that when I was first sent down that all federal prisons offer a vegetarian option, so I was very excited by that, and thought maybe it’d be vegan, but very quickly I realized that that wasn’t the case. All of the vegetarian options at FCI Sheridan contained animal lactation or they had eggs, it wasn’t easy to stay vegan in there.Footnote 1
Harper described his time in prison as a “monstrous…thirty-two-month nightmare.”Footnote 2 He has been quite open about the mental health impacts associated with serving time and has advocated that activists providing support for political prisoners do a better job of addressing those needs more directly and effectively. He stated, “Prison is something that’s horribly traumatizing, I can’t imagine most people being incarcerated for very long at all without having some sort of long-term effect on their lives.”Footnote 3
In this chapter I examine prisons and imprisonment to explore how these institutions, policies, and practices constitute a form of multispecies repression and a set of structural forces that are directly harmful to animal liberation movements and intersectional environmental justice movements (those grassroots efforts focused on defending marginalized communities and their land bases). I argue that by imprisoning animal liberation activists and intersectional environmental justice movement leaders, the criminal legal system hampers or removes critical resources for addressing the harm to nonhumans and that prisons themselves are sites of routine violence against more-than-human populations. Drawing on a range of sources of evidence and literatures, I find there are two reasons explaining this wide-ranging series of impacts by carceral institutions on both human and more-than-human communities:
First, some of the most effective leaders in the animal, earth liberation, and intersectional environmental justice movements are locked behind bars. Removing them from society and daily engagements with social movements significantly diminishes their ability to foment social change. Key activists from groups like SHAC, the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front, as well as “lone wolves” have spent many years behind bars, making it difficult for them to intervene materially and discursively in service to the cause of defending and protecting nonhuman populations and ecosystems. Frequently, when such activists speak out from behind bars during their time in prison, they are severely punished. For example, while he was in prison, SHAC7 activist Kevin Kjonaas wrote a statement about animal liberation that a musical artist read over the public address system at a concert, and Kjonaas was punished by prison officials. Similarly, his colleague Josh Harper was placed into solitary confinement for one hundred days for speaking out from prison. And when they are released from prison and return to their communities, these activists frequently carry the burdens of their disabling time in prison and feel less efficacious and less willing to engage in the level of activism they pursued prior to incarceration.
While many committed animal liberation activists have spent time in America’s penal system, activists from revolutionary movements in communities of color and Indigenous communities (such as the Black Liberation Army, MOVE, Puerto Rican Independence, and American Indian Movement) have tended to face much harsher sentences as well as more violent repression by agents of the state (compounding the more general, daily repression those entire communities face). While the latter set of movements is not usually thought of in the vein of animal liberation causes, I include them here because I consider them to be a part of intersectional environmental justice movements. By that, I mean they are concerned with defending and improving the well-being of marginalized populations and their land bases, which are necessarily multispecies territories. What also makes these movements relevant to intersectional environmental justice is that among their primary concerns are combating state and corporate power, racism, colonialism, and militarism and their effects on vulnerable peoples and ecosystems, in favor of community-based solutions that would result in peoples exercising democratic control over land, territory, and space. The American Indian Movement continues to fight for Native American treaty rights and sovereignty. The Puerto Rican Independentistas seek nothing short of the removal of the US occupying government from that island, while the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army have fought for the same with respect to African American communities. And the MOVE organization in particular is explicitly anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anarchist, and pro–animal liberation. More recently, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement (or the Movement for Black Lives) has continued to build on these earlier efforts, promoting a vision of justice that is intersectional and deeply critical of racist state violence. In sum, these revolutionary movements offer an opportunity to articulate and achieve a broader aim, which is to develop a more robust way of linking movements for animal liberation and environmental and social justice, with efforts to abolish prisons in particular and the caging of living beings of any species more broadly.
The second reason for the wide-ranging spectrum of impacts of carceral institutions on multispecies communities is that prisons and jails produce a range of direct and indirect harms to nonhuman species and ecosystems. In many cases, carceral facilities are constructed on or adjacent to lands and bodies of water that are critical habitats for vulnerable and/or endangered species. Prisons and jails regularly pollute waterways through waste discharges, both routine and accidental, which place many aquatic species at risk. Furthermore, the day to day functioning of a prison or jail is made possible by the mass consumption of nonhuman animals for food, clothing, and other “goods” and “services,” reflecting the general trends we see outside of prisons. Finally, the carceral system contributes significantly to global anthropogenic climate change by producing considerable greenhouse gas emissions,Footnote 4 a socioecological phenomenon that, in turn, contributes to the devastation of nonhuman habitats, well-being, and lives.
Below I elaborate on these two arguments above by considering cases that support these claims.
16.2 Prisons as Sites of Political Repression
Many activists from animal liberation, earth liberation, and social justice movements have served time in carceral facilities, making it difficult for them to promote and support transformative social change. This is a major aim of the prison industrial complex – to repress the people and ideas that generate resistance to multispecies oppressions and to ensure the continued functioning of a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, speciesist, ecocidal capitalist state.
16.2.1 Spaces of State Repression
Marius Mason is currently serving time in prison for his actions in the name of earth and animal liberation. He is a longtime supporter of the radical environmental movement group Earth First!, has worked as a gardener and a volunteer for a free herbal health care collective, and made great strides to unite labor and environmental activists through volunteering for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and building alliances alongside famed radical labor-environmental leader Judi Bari. Mason was involved in an arson at Michigan State University intended to destroy data and equipment that he believed were used to further the production of genetically modified crops. This action was intended as a material demonstration of solidarity with global South nations struggling under the weight of free trade agreements that favor the transition from natural crops to genetically engineered agriculture. The day after the arson action at Michigan State, Mason and his partner set fire to commercial logging equipment at a timber camp in Mesick, Michigan, as a direct action and protest against deforestation. Mason later acknowledged that he also burned boats owned by a mink farmer as a protest action directed at the fur industry. Mason said his actions were “individual acts of conscience,” and that the property damage he committed was intended “to protect my community and the Earth, to respond in defense of the living systems of animals, land and water.”Footnote 5 In alignment with the published guidelines of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front (both of which are underground radical movements that deliberately refuse mainstream, reformist tactics and strategies), no people or animals were physically harmed as a result of these arsons.
Drawing on legislation prohibiting “terrorism” in defense of nonhuman animals, a judge sentenced Mason to twenty-one years and ten months in prison – the longest sentence that any animal or earth liberation activist has faced. Mason was instantly and widely regarded as a political prisoner, given this extraordinary punishment for what amounted to arson and property damage (actions that are already illegal under the law and for which the typical sentence is far less harsh). He is an outspoken transgender man who advocates for the rights of marginalized populations, both human and nonhuman. And while imprisonment has clearly made his activism more difficult, like many political prisoners, Marius Mason continues to seek out ways to make a difference from behind bars. For example, Mason is a prolific artist who has produced numerous paintings that are featured in publications and zines within activist communities around the nation and the world. Mason’s paintings include a wide range of subjects, speaking to a radical intersectional politics that I have elsewhere called a “total liberation” framework,Footnote 6 which seeks to confront all forms of hierarchy, inequality, and domination. A sampling of Mason’s many paintings features the following:
*Nonhuman animals facing oppression in: “tigers for sale” – concerning tigers left in limbo after the closure of the Ringling Bros. circus; chimpanzees facing threats from a large hydroelectric dam in Guinea; a painting decrying laboratory experimentation on mice titled “The Toxicity Test” or “Welcome to Hell, Exhibit A”; and a painting highlighting the plight of the endangered vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California titled “Netting Vaquitas”;
*A series on transgender luminaries titled “Trans Hero/Heroine Series.” This series includes: “Sylvia Rivera: Trans Action Revolutionary”; “Chris Mosier – transathlete and activist”; a painting of African American writer, social activist, and trans woman imprisoned for fighting back against transphobic, racist violent vigilantes, titled: “Cece McDonald”; a painting of an imprisoned African American transgender woman who was refused hormone therapy and wrongfully placed in a male prison facility, titled “Ashley Diamond”;
*A number of paintings celebrating Indigenous environmental justice activists. This series includes: “Tara Houska of Honor the Earth” and “For Naelyn Pike [San Carlos Apache] standing with Standing Rock”;
*Paintings honoring a number of political prisoners, including Puerto Rican independentista Oscar Lopez Rivera while he was incarcerated, titled “Free Oscar Lopez,” and “Pine Ridge Sundance Tree for Leonard Peltier”;
Mason has also produced artwork focused on the struggle against environmental racism in America’s cities (“The Trouble in Flint”) and much more. In addition to his paintings, Mason writes poetry and offers words of inspiration in letters to supporters and activists worldwide. And while Mason’s intersectional environmental justice activism has inspired many supporters and admirers, the prison system severely limits his capacity to engage in that work. For example, he has had to fight for his right to vegan meals while being placed in solitary confinement.
American Indian Movement political prisoner Leonard Peltier was a dedicated AIM activist during the early 1970s, during which time he actively supported Native sovereignty and opposed predatory federal and corporate activities designed to extract mineral and ecological wealth from Native lands. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the alleged murder of two FBI agents during a government assault on the Pine Ridge reservation. Peltier’s writings from prison also articulate a critique of US colonialism and empire as environmental racism directed at Indigenous peoples:
White society would now like to terminate us as peoples and push us off our reservations so they can steal our remaining mineral and oil resources. It’s nothing new for them to steal from nonwhite peoples. When the oppressors succeed with their illegal thefts and depredations, it’s called colonialism. When their efforts to colonize indigenous peoples are met with resistance or anything but abject surrender, it’s called war. When the colonized peoples attempt to resist their oppression and defend themselves, we’re called criminals.Footnote 7
Peltier’s argument reflects the widely held view among AIM supporters and human rights attorneys that his imprisonment was based on scant evidence and rooted in the US state’s desire to punish an Indigenous man and movement for resisting conquest.
MOVE is a Black revolutionary group founded in Philadelphia in the early 1970s. The group organized around a determination to improve community health and to challenge the racist-capitalist state, and the dispossession, police brutality, and industrial pollution it routinely metes out. A clear illustration of a movement committed to intersectional environmental justice, many MOVE members were vegetarians and staunch animal rights advocates. Not surprisingly, MOVE was targeted with massive police repression and militarized violence, and numerous members were killed while others were imprisoned, including Ramona Africa. Years after her release, MOVE activist and former political prisoner Ramona Africa describes how she and other prisoners pushed back against their jailers by embracing multispecies ecological awareness and interdependence:
[I]t was really something to be [imprisoned] with MOVE women…One thing we did was we fed the birds leftover food…Leftover food…if it wasn’t used, [the jail] couldn’t save it according to their health codes, they had to toss it. The county jail is right along the river and there are a lot of seagulls there and the river is so polluted there is virtually no edible food for the seagulls, so we used to take leftover fish sticks, eggs or bread, different things that we figured the birds would eat – we had these plastic buckets and we would take the leftovers out [during yard time]. We would dump [the food] and walk away and the birds would swoop down and eat it. This one particular day, a Sunday, we had gotten the birds some food at breakfast and we were waiting for [yard time] so we could take the food out. This one sergeant, a Black woman, was in a very nasty mood, she told us that we could not take those buckets of food out. Well, we went off. We told her, “What are you talking about? You were gonna throw this food away. Can you substantiate to us why this food should go in the trash when those birds could eat it? If you feel that life should not eat then apply it to your own self and stop eating. It’s not the birds’ fault they can’t feed themselves, they don’t wanna eat this slop, but man has poisoned their source of food…You’re not gonna tell us that we aren’t gonna feed life.”
We went off. Well, she got all mad, she got pissed off, she called the riot squad over, said we were disturbing the institution, they didn’t lock us in our cells then but that night at lock-in time they locked us in [and] when we got up the next morning our cell doors were locked…They had locked us in and gave us write-ups, misconducts…We got found guilty…[and] we each got a fifty-thousand-dollar bail, all for taking a stand on feeding the birds. We didn’t threaten anybody, you know, but that is the attitude of the prisons. But these are the things I learned from MOVE, about taking a stand for life, taking care of life.Footnote 8
Ramona Africa’s story powerfully reflects the ways that incarceration is predicated on anti-ecological principles that subject caged beings to a living death, that seek to impose immobility on a world where mobility is a constant, and that seek separation and dependence in a world of interconnection and interdependence. Africa and her colleagues resisted based on the fundamental principles of intersectional environmental and multispecies justice.
16.2.2 Chemical Warfare
Another terrain of intersectional environmental struggle inside the carceral system concerns the use of chemicals. For example, the considerable volumes of pepper spray used to pacify and punish imprisoned persons for noncompliant behavior is quite concerning, which includes a range of people, particularly those suffering from mental illness.Footnote 9 Corrections officers routinely apply pepper spray to imprisoned persons in order to force them to follow orders and/or to subdue them during moments of conflict. The results of exposure to pepper spray can range from eye irritation and temporary blindness, burning sensations, second- and third-degree burns, positional asphyxia, psychotic episodes, and possibly death.Footnote 10 I refer to such practices as chemical warfare because they are actions intended to harm, subdue, and incapacitate an individual and/or group for the purpose of controlling that population and their associated territory. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines chemical warfare as “tactical warfare using incendiary mixtures, smokes, or irritant, burning, poisonous, or asphyxiating gases” and, according to that same source, a chemical weapon is defined simply as “a weapon used in chemical warfare.”Footnote 11 I believe these definitions accurately and appropriately describe many of the practices of using chemicals on the bodies and communities of incarcerated persons as well as the broader realities of environmental injustice that affect communities beyond the prison walls around the world. In many ways, the prison is the ideal space for the use of chemical warfare and the practice of environmental injustice because the target population is so severely limited in its mobility and the space that is the terrain of conflict is so well defined.
From a multispecies justice and animal liberation perspective, we can also point to the ways in which chemical warfare directed at nonhumans generally precedes and facilitates chemical warfare used against humans. Studies of pepper spray’s primary active ingredient – oleoresin capsicum (OC) – have been used to determine its efficacy and safety on humans by first using it on nonhumans, particularly mice. One recent study notes that OC causes numerous physiological reactions: “Cardiopulmonary functions such as respiratory depression, severe irritation, inflamed respiratory tract, hyperventilation and, tachycardia are the most affected ones when it comes to the riot control agent oleoresin capsicum (OC) exposure.”Footnote 12 It is noteworthy that the authors of that study explicitly name OC as a method of “riot control,” which is an open acknowledgment of its use as a weapon of state violence.
European American activist Ray Luc Levasseur was deeply involved in anti-war and anti-racist organizing in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1986, he was indicted and charged with taking part in paramilitary actions in support of a range of anti-imperialist and social justice struggles (including support for Puerto Rican Independence, the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and opposition to US military involvement in Central America) as part of the United Freedom Front. All of these movements – anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-racist – are, in my view, clearly and comfortably within the ambit of environmental justice, as they are organized in support of democracy, self-determination, public health, and the reclamation of territories by colonized peoples. While he was acquitted of seditious conspiracy, Levasseur still had to serve his original sentence. During his time incarcerated at ADX – Administrative Maximum, in Florence, Colorado, the nation’s highest security prison – Levasseur noted the presence and power of pepper spray and rightly called it an instrument of chemical warfare:
I’m deeply cornered in their prison. My sight is diminished, but I maintain my vision. I see their hand in the use of four point “restraints” to spread-eagle prisoners, something inherently abusive regardless of the excuse. I see forced feedings, cell extractions, mind medications, and chemical weapons used to incapacitate.Footnote 13
Other forms of chemical warfare in carceral facilities are quite widespread. Recent reports have surfaced that immigrant children apprehended by federal authorities and placed in prisons (“detention centers”) have been forcibly injected with psychotropic drugs, rendering them lethargic, dizzy, listless, incapacitated, afraid, and obese.Footnote 14 And while these chemicals are not strictly “incendiary,” they are indeed weapons used to neutralize and pacify populations deemed enemies. Author, professor, and former Black liberation political prisoner Angela Davis served time in a jail in New York state in a section where all or most of the female imprisoned persons were mentally ill. While serving time, Davis’s capacities to work as an activist were severely hampered – one of the key aims of state repression. But she also noticed that many of the women in the prison were being given Thorazine (now called chlorpromazine) – a drug intended to control the moods of mentally ill persons, and one that is reportedly overused in many prison settings:
After they took their seats, they became completely absorbed in themselves, blank stares telling me that no matter how much I wanted to talk, it would be futile to approach any of them. Later I learned that these women received Thorazine with their meals each day and, even if they were completely sane, the tranquilizers would always make them uncommunicative and detached from their surroundings. After a few hours of watching them gaze silently into space, I felt as though I had been thrown into a nightmare.Footnote 15
There was resistance to this practice as well, Davis reported:
One morning in the day room, Barbara, the young Black woman from the cell directly across from mine, broke her habitual silence to tell me she had refused her daily dose of Thorazine. It was very simple: she was tired of feeling like a vegetable all the time. She was going to resist the Thorazine and was going to get out of 4b [a special section of the jail where mentally ill prisoners were held].Footnote 16
Thorazine/chlorpromazine is prescribed as an anti-psychotic treatment for people with schizophrenia and other mental disorders. It was the first widely prescribed anti-psychotic drug. And while Davis herself may not have been forced to ingest this drug while incarcerated, the impacts of witnessing its effects on her fellow incarcerated peers clearly left an imprint and affected her for decades. Moreover, chlorpromazine was and remains widely used in experiments on nonhuman animals.Footnote 17
The relevance of chlorpromazine and oleoresin capsicum here is twofold: (1) there is evidence that these substances have been used to sedate, harm, and control human beings in carceral settings, thus reducing their capacity to think clearly and resist their conditions of confinement; and (2) like virtually any other drug on the market and like many other industrial chemicals in use, chlorpromazine and oleo capsaicin were first tested on nonhumans, reflecting the medical industry’s long-standing use of “animal models” as a way of ensuring that a treatment is “safe” and acceptable for humans.Footnote 18 In other words, these chemicals were and are simultaneously being used on nonhumans and humans to officially advance medically and politically desirable outcomes for the capitalist, carceral state, but are also integral to maintaining the speciesist and racist brutality of the medical-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex, which means sacrificing the lives of nonhumans in experiments and harming imprisoned persons who are force-fed or sprayed with these substances. Moreover, the use of these harmful chemicals in prisons and jails is directly linked to the broader trend of medical experimentation on incarcerated human populations, a phenomenon occurring in many prison systems around the world.Footnote 19
Carceral institutions are of significance to scholars and advocates of animal liberation, earth liberation, and intersectional environmental justice movements because leaders in these movements have been routinely incarcerated, which, in addition to reflecting state-based punishment for their resistance activities, often severely limits their ability to continue the work of social change. Furthermore, the use of chemical warfare in carceral facilities is frequently used to pacify and punish imprisoned persons deemed a threat, which directly harms those populations and indirectly harms those who witness such abuses (including political prisoners), a practice that is made possible by experimentation on nonhuman animals. Even so, many such activists find ways of pursuing some level of movement support and leadership, even under exceedingly harsh conditions.
16.3 Prisons as Harmful to Nonhuman Species and Ecosystems
Prisons, jails, and other carceral facilities are also sites of direct harm to nonhuman animals and ecosystems. These impacts include the use of nonhumans for food and profit, the effects of prison construction and daily operations on sensitive ecological habits where endangered species live, and the significant contributions to global climate gas emissions associated with prison systems.
As noted earlier, Josh Harper found it difficult to maintain a vegan diet in prison because meals served in US carceral facilities in many ways reflect the general diets and eating habits embraced by much of the American public, which is heavily centered on animal products. For example, a menu from the infamous federal prison on Alcatraz Island, dated 1946, listed the following dishes: “roast pork shoulder, beef pot pie Anglaise, baked meat croquettes with Bechamel sauce, potato chowder, fried eggs and spinach with bacon.”Footnote 20 A 2015 analysis of prison menus from around the United States bears out this observation as well, with the following items appearing on meal trays regularly: boiled or scrambled eggs, milk, margarine, gravy, chicken livers, meat patties, hot dogs, chicken, turkey, bologna sandwiches.Footnote 21 In a study of a twenty-eight-day cycle menu at a large county jail in the state of Georgia, researchers found that the following items containing animal products were regularly served: sausage links or sausage patties, chicken patties, beef chili, macaroni and cheese, mayonnaise, cheese slices, lemon cake, buttered rice, cookies, chocolate cake, yellow cake, devil’s food cake, cornbread, pancakes, buttered grits, ham, charbroiled beef, and breaded fish. Not only is this menu heavy on animal products, the study’s authors concluded that it is nutritionally unhealthy in that it exceeds national recommendations (e.g., the Institute of Medicine and the National Academies’ Dietary Reference Intakes) on sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and because it provides less than two-thirds of the recommended daily allowance for magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, D, and E.Footnote 22
The largest single utilizer of the California state Department of General Services contracts is the California state prison system. Specifically, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) feeds some 118,000 incarcerated persons each day. The California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) is the state agency that oversees the work assignments for thousands of imprisoned persons in the state’s prison system, managing some 57 manufacturing and service operations. CALPIA produces these goods and services for federal, state, county, and city governments as well as tribal governments, and each year the agency makes and sells some $65 million worth of agricultural and food products, including meat, eggs, milk, and chicken. By far the largest purchaser of these goods from CALPIA is the CDCR, revealing that the prison system is a both a massive producer and consumer of animal products. Moreover, the CDCR is the largest state of California food purchaser and service provider, delivering 130 million meals each year across the state’s thirty-five carceral facilities at a cost of $150 million.Footnote 23 And while there are vegetarian options available to a small subset of incarcerated persons, the vast majority of meals feature animal products, making the prison system a site and source of significant nonhuman suffering and violence. Thus, within the carceral system, massive volumes of nonhumans are conscripted and consumed.
During his time in Texas prisons, environmental justice activist Keith “Malik” Washington regularly narrated the multispecies injustices occurring in that state’s prisons. In an article he wrote (that was published in the radical environmental publication Earth First! Journal), Washington explains that the Eastham Unit (where he served time for many years) produces approximately 80,000 eggs per week and that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) nets around $100,000 in revenue each week from that operation alone.Footnote 24 He also noted that Eastham places 3,000 hogs, 600 sows, and ships 21 piglets out for sale each week.Footnote 25 Washington draws links between the struggle for nonhuman animal and human rights, and urges his readers to act:
Many prisoners have died on account of the deadly extreme heat in Texas prisons. Young pigs are vulnerable to extreme heat. Young piglets generate profits for TDCJ. A couple years ago, TDCJ invested $175,000 for a cooling system for the pigs. The pigs are being preserved for slaughter so TDCJ can benefit. TDCJ does not have any concern for animal rights or human rights. Its main focus is profits by any means. It is time we take a closer look at what is really going on inside Texas prisons. As activists who are on the “front lines,” we have a duty to confront those entities who abuse and mistreat animals as well as pollute our precious water supplies.Footnote 26
And while the consumption of nonhuman animals in jails and prisons should be a major concern for any animal liberationist, it must also be noted that the general quality and quantity of prison food in the United States and in most countries is deplorable, frequently contributing to malnutrition, illness, and even starvation.Footnote 27 One legal complaint on behalf of imprisoned persons held in Gordon County, Georgia’s jail reported that “inmates have told us they are so hungry they eat toothpaste and toilet paper. Most reported losing a significant amount of weight.”Footnote 28 These long-standing practices have only been exacerbated during this era of the privatization of food services in carceral facilities.Footnote 29 Imprisoned people in prisons around the U.S. and the world regularly engage in hunger strikes, riots, and other forms of resistance in response to unhealthy, unappetizing, and insufficient food.Footnote 30
16.3.2 Impacts on Sensitive Ecological Habitats
There are additional reasons to be concerned about the impacts of prisons on nonhuman populations, and examining the relationship between prisons and broader ecosystems reveals some troubling trends. The Monroe Correctional Complex (North of Seattle) is the site of two interrelated problems that are increasingly common in carceral facilities: overcrowding and excessive strain on waste management systems. As a result of punitive criminal legal system policies (such as “three strikes”), many prisons and jails have incarcerated populations that are far greater than the number of people such facilities were built and designed to house. The frequent result is that sewage systems are overtaxed and break down, producing spills both inside and outside of these institutions. In the Monroe Correctional Complex case, several hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage spilled from this prison into the nearby Skykomish river, where chinook, coho, and pink salmon populations live, and where steelhead and bull trout thrive as well. This river is also a popular site for human recreation, fishing, kayaking, and swimming, so when the prison’s sewage system overflows, both human and nonhuman communities are placed at risk.Footnote 31
In another example, a proposed federal prison to be located in Letcher County, Kentucky, would have caged hundreds of human beings and also negatively impacted critical habitat for the endangered grey bat and the Indiana bat. Both species continue to suffer extensive damage related to a deadly disease called White Nose Syndrome.Footnote 32 In addition to these vulnerable nonhuman populations, some seventy-one different species of fauna were potentially threatened by the construction of what would be the most expensive federal prison in US history. Furthermore, the prison would have been located atop a site where coal mining via mountaintop removal occurred for years, adding insult to injury. A coalition of incarcerated persons, prisoners’ rights organizations, and environmental justice activists mobilized for years to oppose the construction of USP Letcher because it would threaten the health of imprisoned people, nonhuman species, and local ecosystems, and because the environmental impact report the government commissioned did an insufficient job of addressing those anticipated effects. In June of 2019, a group of twenty-one incarcerated people and several allied organizations succeeded in stopping this project when the federal Bureau of Prisons withdrew its proposalFootnote 33 – a major victory for carceral, environmental, climate, and multispecies justice.
In June of 2000, the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance filed a lawsuit to challenge the proposed construction of the Kern Valley State Prison in central California. One of the many reasons for this intervention by Critical Resistance and its coalition partners was that not only would this prison be inherently harmful for the humans caged within it; it also threatened the habitats and well-being of vulnerable nonhuman species like the Tipton kangaroo rat and the San Joaquin Valley kit fox. The unlikely coalition of partners in this struggle included the Rainforest Action Network, the NAACP, and a group called Friends of the Kangaroo Rat. While the movement lost that particular battle and the prison was built despite their efforts, the struggle underscored the many ways in which the fates of humans and more-than-human species are entangled and threatened by the prison system.Footnote 34
16.3.3 Prisons as Engines of Climate Injustice
In a groundbreaking study, McGee, Greiner, and Appleton (2020) find that increases in the number of people incarcerated in a given state are significantly associated with growth in greenhouse gas emissions. These climate-disrupting emissions occur as a result of construction for new prison facilities, the delivery of goods and services to feed and clothe incarcerated persons, and because imprisoned people constitute a cheap labor force that provides a major economic boost to corporations that, in turn, produce additional emissions. In other words, prisons play an important role in contributing to global anthropogenic climate change and are a key component of what scholars have called the Treadmill of ProductionFootnote 35 – a theory that explains how the global economy relies on the continuous extraction of material wealth from ecosystems, which is then used to fuel capital investment, resulting in rising pollution levels and social inequalities. In the context of the prison industrial complex, these dynamics reinforce a Treadmill of Mass Incarceration, wherein the existing tensions between labor and capital are further amplified by the monopolization of low-cost, nonunionized, coerced, imprisoned workers, which feeds the process of capital accumulation.Footnote 36
These linkages are (or at least should be) of great concern because climate change’s effects on nonhuman populations is extensive. However, it must be noted that climate change’s documented impacts on nonhuman animals are rarely centered in major scientific reports and generally ignored.Footnote 37 Despite that fact, the effects are grave and include: the widely documented harm to polar bears associated with the multiplier effects of Arctic sea ice loss; the widespread extinction of harlequin frogs in Central and South America due to the growth of a lethal fungus that attacks their skin and teeth;Footnote 38 and significant declines in the British ring ouzel population, a songbird.Footnote 39. More broadly, there is a general scientific consensus that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, and one study quantified potential losses of species by concluding that between 15 and 37 percent of all nonhumans could be extinct by the year 2050, as a consequence of human-caused climate disruption.Footnote 40 It should also be noted that the vast majority of scholarly and activist narratives around climate justice focus almost entirely on the uneven and disproportionate impacts of anthropogenic climate change on vulnerable and marginalized human populations.Footnote 41 Given the clear and undeniable effects of climate disruption on nonhuman communities, it would behoove scholars and activists to consider expanding the ambit of their concerns to include a multispecies climate justice framework.
Carceral institutions present major threats to the well-being and futures of nonhuman populations because of (1) the common construction and location of prisons in critical animal habitat and fragile ecosystems; (2) the routine, daily operations of prisons that extract life from millions of nonhumans for food (among other goods and services); and (3) prisons’ production of substantial greenhouse gas emissions, contributing both to anthropogenic climate change and mass extinction.
Prisons and jails represent a form of multispecies violence and repression directed at nonhuman animals and their defenders. Carceral institutions are literally built on and rely upon the bodies and territories of nonhumans and vulnerable human populations, producing massive harm across species and space. Furthermore, activists from animal liberation, earth liberation, and intersectional environmental justice movements have been frequently imprisoned as punishment for their resistance efforts and as a way to neutralize their efficacy, which means they have fewer means to promote justice for nonhumans and humans alike. Since this book volume is aimed at confronting the logic of criminalization and incarceration as a pathway toward justice for nonhumans, this chapter offers a critical perspective on this matter. The evidence presented here suggests quite clearly that the criminal legal system and the prison-industrial complex operate in ways that are deeply detrimental to the present and future life chances of nonhumans for a myriad of reasons.
My inclusion and consideration of intersectional environmental justice movements (such as the American Indian Movement, the Black Liberation struggles, the Puerto Rican Independence movement, and the Movement for Black Lives) stems from my view that these political formations present scholars and activists with an opportunity to articulate substantive linkages between animal liberation and environmental/social justice efforts, with a specific focus on prison abolition and the abolition of caging across species. Here I draw on the wisdom and vision of the Black Liberation struggle to make this case. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a former member of the Black Panther Party, a supporter of the MOVE organization, an internationally renowned journalist and activist on death row in Pennsylvania. Widely viewed as a political prisoner, Abu-Jamal is serving time at SCI Frackville, Pennsylvania, for the alleged murder of a police officer, another case based on highly questionable and suspect “evidence.” During the 1980s, Mumia Abu-Jamal served time at SCI Huntingdon in Pennsylvania, and, in 1989, wrote about contaminated water in that facility:
It appears that this water problem is more than prison wide; civilian communities, sharing the same water source, are also affected…The heavy gaseous odor still lingers, and a dark oily ring stains cups. It makes me wonder about a saying my wife and I share, that bars and steel can’t stop the power of love. The dark side of that also is true: bars, steel, and court orders can’t stop the seepage of pollution that afflicts both the caged and the “free.” Despite the legal illusions erected by the system to divide and separate life, we the caged share air, water, and hope with you, the not-yet-caged. We share your same breath. As John Africa teaches, “All life is connected.”Footnote 42
In the passage above, Abu-Jamal quotes MOVE founder, the charismatic John Africa, who once declared, “Go as far as you want in the forest, and you won’t find no jails. Because the animals of the forest don’t believe in jail. But come to civilization, that’s all you see.”Footnote 43
These two quotations underscore my view that carceral systems are harmful and destructive of everyone and everything they touch because caging – whether of humans or nonhuman animals – is inherently violent and environmentally unjust. Abu-Jamal and Africa both insist that all life is connected, so whether one is among the caged or the “not-yet-caged,” the overwhelming majority of us are impacted by the prison industrial complex’s widescale impacts on our bodies, climate, land, food sources, and water, and therefore have a vested interest in seeking its abolition.