Toxic Prisons, Racial Capital, and the Refuse of Reform 

12 Min Read

August 18, 2023

Marah Nagelhout is a PhD candidate and abolitionist organizer living in Providence, Rhode Island. She is currently a graduate fellow at the Pembroke Center for Research on Women and Gender at Brown University where she is completing her dissertation, Critique of Extractive Reason. Marah’s work seeks to name and usher in the obsolescence of the prison industrial complex in its manifold forms of human and environmental degradation.

“We will never have a complete definition of fascism because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be “reform.” - George Jackson, Blood in My Eye


On April 3, 2021, a state of emergency was declared in Manatee County, Florida, as a newly discovered leak at the long defunct Piney Point phosphate mine threatened to send over 400 million gallons of contaminated water cascading into the surrounding area. Over 300 homes were evacuated and, after public outcry, so too were a portion of the incarcerated occupants of the county jail, located within just one mile of this toxic site. The proximity between the old mine and the jail is not surprising, as nearly 600 U.S. prisons are built dangerously close to coal ash dumps, slurry impoundments, and waste receptacles. Like the gypsum stack and slurry pond, which contain the non-human byproducts of industry, prisons serve as a receptacle for the human “excess” created by racial capital, emerging, to borrow Angela Davis’ phrasing, as a “black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.”1

Drone Base | Reuters CC BY 4.0

As I argue in my broader research project, these volatile containment infrastructures are expressions of a primary contradiction of capitalism that arises from the structural necessitation of waste in the value form of capital itself. Be it the polluted byproducts of industry, the degradation of the health and energy of labourers, or the creation of immiserated and policed surplus populations, the fact remains: there must be human and nonhuman excess to create surplus. In some instances, as with Big Sandy Detention Center in Martin County, Kentucky, the environmental and carceral embodiments of capital’s extractive contradiction directly overlap as new prisons are built on the truncated, porous remains of mountains bored through and blasted by successive eras of shaft mining and mountaintop removal. These “toxic prisons”—as environmental abolitionists call them—are monuments to a long and ugly historical allegiance between extractive industries and the repressive mechanisms of the capitalist state, of which the post-industrial “prison fix” is just the latest manifestation.2 From industrial slavery and postbellum convict leasing to inmate oil spill cleanup and the idle occupants of toxic prisons, the mine (alongside the well and pipeline) has long been a site where disposability and exposure to toxicity are racialized anew. It is within these sites that the violability of the Black subject and the land become mutually constitutive, and where antiblackness is re-naturalized as the dominant mechanism for securing the reserves necessary for capital’s adaptability and expansion, in—and importantly well beyond—the realm of energy.

It is difficult to account for this history alongside our present fossil-carceral nexus without defaulting to geologic grammars of time, that is, without spatializing history in a lateral image of progress. Indeed, places like Big Sandy invite us to read time stratigraphically, to imagine the subterranean depths as a historical ledger of sorts.3 Beginning with the lowest sediment, we have the most acutely coercive and wasteful modes of human and non-human energy capture, above which new extractive technologies build, rising to the supposedly more sustainable and progressive “present” of the surface. It follows that each reconfiguration of land, labour, and law is a corrective to the most egregious abuses of the preceding era. This process culminates most explicitly in the toxic prison—a project within which ecological remediation and the carceral logic of reform converge. While there are a number of issues with this temporal abstraction (most notably its compatibility with colonial archaeologies of race), I want to highlight specifically how it falsely yokes failure, accountability, and reform to progress in a manner that distorts the role of the state vis-à-vis the waste compulsion of capital. 

This phenomenon is dramatized by the events at Piney Point: catastrophe looms, the state intervenes, and the government pledges to ramp up remediation efforts and hold guilty parties accountable.4 The state, in this way, emerges as a respondent to crises of “malfunction” in a manner that depicts infrastructural failure as aberrational rather than constitutive of extractive practices. Of course, without the freedom to inevitably fail—to leak, pollute, and maim—in the future, these industries couldn’t profitably operate in the present. And the same can be said of their carceral corollary but with a slight inversion: without the freedom to “fail” in the present, the prison industrial complex would lose its foothold on the future. Crumbling, overcrowded prisons, for example, beget new prisons; police shootings, tellingly labelled “excessive” to the normative functioning of policing, usher in more oversight and training (i.e. funding and legitimacy).

Without the freedom to inevitably fail—to leak, pollute, and maim—in the future, these industries couldn’t profitably operate in the present. And the same can be said of their carceral corollary but with a slight inversion: without the freedom to “fail” in the present, the prison industrial complex would lose its foothold on the future.

This cycle of failure and “accountability” conceals the important fact that under capitalism, waste is not simply a byproduct of an unsustainable mode of production or a callous disregard for human life; it is a precondition of accumulation and exploitation. Karl Marx discusses this in the context of labour. He writes, “Just as capital on one side creates surplus labour, surplus labour is at the same time equally the presupposition of the existence of capital. The whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time.”5 Marx’s emphasis on disposable time alights on waste’s temporal opposition to the activity of labour and the manner in which the “idle,” “unproductive,” and not-yet-exploited must be perpetually folded into the formal totality of capitalist value. And time that exists in excess of that which is appropriated through labour is not inherently or essentially disposable. It must, as Marx importantly asserts, be created. By predisposing subjects to time theft through carceral coercion and environmental condemnation, it is precisely the capitalist state that serves this function.

This may seem obvious in the environmental context. Of course, the state helps determine what communities can be polluted and displaced. We call them “sacrifice zones” and acknowledge that they are products of encounters with extractive violence that were sanctioned by the organized neglect of the state. No one would reasonably point to some innate “sacrificiality” of their constituents or suggest that they became sacrificial by partaking in sacrificial acts. The same cannot be said of how our society accounts for communities rendered disposable through the extractive violence of policing. Here, racist notions of innate criminality stubbornly persist alongside the more common but no less counterproductive liberal account of crime as a result of economic desperation. This latter rationale does little more than offer a socioeconomic motive for criminal acts at the cost of grasping the active creation of the criminal through surveillance, policing, and incarceration. While more sympathetic as “a victim of circumstance,” this figure is ultimately still posited as the agent of their own disposability rather than the product of encounters with the very structures and forces that render them disposable. 

This type of vulgar environmental determinism fails even when the determinant forces of disposability are literally environmental. In the wake of natural disasters, for example, white commentators rapidly devolve into a behaviouralist account of the storm’s impact on Black communities, a habit that is due in no small part to how thoroughly criminality has been imputed to blackness in the U.S. In these moments, as Christina Sharpe argues, Black subjects (and particularly Black mothers) are “cast as less-than-human victims and agents of ‘natural’ disasters” prompting pathologizing questions such as “what was she doing in the storm in the first place,” or “why didn’t they evacuate?”6 Had the crisis at Piney Point not been averted we can imagine another likely refrain would have been, “well, maybe they shouldn’t have committed a crime.” Their guilt, it follows, justifies their exposure to environmental harm. It doesn’t matter that given their pre-trial status, the occupants of Manatee County Jail are categorically “not guilty” according to the myth of legal due process. It doesn’t matter because their criminal status is not behaviorally defined in the first place. 7 It is created in the recursive cycle of infrastructural codification masquerading as the machinery of accountability. This is the cycle by which “disposable time” is created. It is the time of the prison sentence and the temporality of weaponized contingency. It is the time whereby past extractive violence—be it policing or pollution—suspends subjects in anxious anticipation of future violence, never knowing when or how it will happen, only that it will. 

"People and Planet" Artwork by Katie Garth, Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative.

This cycle won’t be broken until the infrastructural armature that supports it is destroyed, beginning with the disruption of reformist construction efforts. Indeed, “No New Prisons” and “No New Pipelines” are not just catchy movement slogans; they are declarations of an essential strategy for rupturing the capitalist state’s creation and metabolization of waste. This is exceedingly important as we contend with the climatological offspring of decades of fossil fuel combustion and the accelerated creation of precisely the types of human geographies that are displaced, neglected, policed, and incarcerated. If, as Lenin teaches us, the state is the manifestation of the irreconcilability of capital’s contradictions, it cannot overcome or transcend its own extractive foundations, even if our technologies of energy production do. If there is no such thing as post-extractive capitalism, the state is not only incapable of delivering us from a future of climate collapse, but it also cannot respond to its devastating effects outside the stultified parameters of its repressive technologies of confinement and disposal. This is to say, it will reform itself, it will adapt, but it won’t produce anything fundamentally new. Our organizing energies must be directed accordingly with the express knowledge that our alternative infrastructures will themselves be condemned as waste and criminalized. We must adapt, in turn, without letting the state of emergency distract us from the emergency that is the state.


1. Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York, 2003), 16.

2. Fight Toxic Prisons, Winchester, Kentucky,, see also “prison fix” from Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s monumentally impactful text, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley, 2007).

3. My attention to stratigraphic conceptions of history and geologic grammars of race is indebted to Kathryn Yusoff, whose 2018 text, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None has been foundational to my work. 

4. For Piney Point, that would be the Wall Street financiers of HRK Holdings, who bought the toxic site in 2006 under the weakly enforceable condition that they clean up and monitor the old plant. As Marx reminds us, it is “generally the most worthless and wretched kind of money-capitalists” that swoop in to monetize the ruins of destitute industries, Capital Volume III (Amherst, NY, 1993), 199.

5. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Amherst, NY,1993), 398.

6. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC, 2016), 79.

7. Bettina Aptheker makes this emphatic point: “The single most important thing to understand in all of this is that the behavioralist view of the criminal has nothing to do with breaking the law.” Bettina Aptheker, "The social functions of the prisons in the United States," in Angela Davis ed., If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (New York, 1971).

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