Removal is the basic condition of imprisonment, separating inmates from homes and families. But as Jeanne Haffner unearths below, while people on Rikers Island are held apart from their communities, the fruits of their labor are present throughout New York City’s landscape and economy. Historically, Rikers has served as an environmental laboratory and an agricultural outpost, managing the city’s waste and generating its greenery. The work is practical, but it can also be restorative. For centuries, reformers have held that work in “natural” environments can help rehabilitate those who serve time. Today, solar panels and house-grown food save money for prison administrators nationwide, while preparing inmates to enter “the green economy.” But for many of those sent outside the greenhouse, working in nature is taking ever more dangerous forms, from cleaning up oil spills to fighting wildfires. As prisoners clean and create the landscape, what do their efforts sustain?
In 1999, a New York Times journalist was astonished by his visit to the Rikers Island jail complex: “Environmentalists might think they had died and gone to eco-heaven,” he wrote. The population of the 413-acre correctional facility had swelled to 20,000, including detainees awaiting trial as well as a smaller segment of sentenced men and women — 15,000 more than its intended capacity. Most news coverage at the time (and since) focused on the violence endemic within the jails’ gray walls. But this writer highlighted what was happening outside, in the hundreds of acres of green open space that surrounded the buildings.
Rikers, infamous for its solitary confinement, also encompassed cultivated fields where detainees grew vegetables and plants for community centers, parks, and public housing projects in New York City, as well as for the jails’ own kitchens. The site, built on a landfill composed of trash from the city that surrounded it, now had a $5 million food waste composting plant operated by the city’s Department of Sanitation. Rikers had become a laboratory, the journalist wrote, “for solving one of the city’s intractable problems: getting rid of garbage.” Finally, a new GreenHouse program run by the Horticultural Society New York (today known as the Hort) offered education, job training, and therapy. All three programs relied, to varying degrees, on the notion that nature, and work in nature, are rehabilitative — not only freeing individuals from incarceration but keeping them out once freed.
James Jiler, a Yale-trained urban ecologist, ran the Hort’s program at the time. Jiler had come to Rikers from the Baltimore Urban Ecology Project, a “social forestry” program that aimed to bolster poor, inner-city neighborhoods through tree planting, urban gardening, and environmental education. “What gave me the idea that [the Rikers GreenHouse program] could work is that I saw it happen in Baltimore,” Jiler explained. “What I learned in Baltimore is that the most hard-pressed people experiencing economic difficulties would really connect to these moments. By watching the environment thrive, they thrive with it.” One Baltimore resident who worked with him, Jiler recalled, had named one of the street trees she planted, and talked to it.
Participants in the Hort’s program, which continues today, gain knowledge of the basics of ecology, garden design, and planting; they receive emotional support and develop social skills. Graduates of the program have found employment in nurseries and parks, and are much less likely to return to Rikers than other detainees. (Only 14 percent of the Hort’s participants return to jail, versus 65 percent of detainees overall — which may reflect the stringency of the program’s admission standards as much as the effectiveness of its methods.) While some received therapy in the garden, however, other people detained on Rikers were out working in the fields or sorting food waste for the composting facility. Unlike the GreenHouse program, these work details were not accompanied by classroom instruction, emotional support, or job training. Instead of “rehabilitation,” part of a longer-term strategy to address the issues that brought individuals to Rikers in the first place, they were simply “labor,” part of an inmate or detainee’s punishment.
There is a fine line between landscape work and landscape therapy. While it’s hard to argue that time on Rikers is better spent locked in grim dormitories than in a garden, “getting back to the land” has not been and is not now universally therapeutic. The rhetoric of nature as “healer” that underpins the GreenHouse program’s popularity can be used just as effectively to exploit prisoners and former prisoners as it can to enhance their future opportunities. This is especially true as landscape-oriented work for prisoners and former prisoners has largely shifted from the production of food to the processing of waste of all kinds, from city trash to the remediation of large-scale contaminated sites. A 2011 National Institute of Corrections report, “The Greening of Corrections,” demonstrates how the belief in nature as a rehabilitative tool has expanded way beyond the garden. Sustainability, which in the report’s analysis includes everything from installing solar panels to organic gardening, entails a “comprehensive strategy that provides access to viable hands-on training … to reduce recidivism and influence [inmates] to become productive citizens in an emerging green economy.” Prisoners and former prisoners throughout the country are now tasked with cleaning up trash of all kinds, from everyday garbage to oil spills and toxic brownfield sites. Prison labor forms an essential part of the sustainable economy, which is built on the historical precedent of prisoners working in the landscape. But where did the notion that working in nature can “heal” prisoners come from in the first place? And how does is it operate today?
Exposure to greenery has long been a central tenet of urban social reform. Throughout the 19th century, many architects, planners, and social theorists in Europe and the United States argued that just the sight of trees, plants, shrubs, and other natural features could offer an antidote to the gray environments of smoke-filled industrial cities. For Frederick Law Olmsted, for instance, parks alleviated the ailments caused by urban life, notably “softening of the brain, paralysis, palsy, monomania, or insanity, mental and nervous excitability and moroseness, melancholy and irascibility.” Olmsted felt that the creation of parks for tenement dwellers would counteract the “ordinary hard, hustling working hours of town life.” Jacob Riis, Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, and others shared this notion, reflecting it in their visions for ideal urban environments, from garden cities to towers in the park.
But a century earlier, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who perhaps best encapsulated the relationship between nature, physical confinement, and spiritual rejuvenation. While in exile in Switzerland in the 1760s, Rousseau found solace amongst the trees and plants of Saint Peter’s Island in Lake Biel. Although his body was not free, he wrote in Rêveries, nature had liberated his soul; he had discovered a “happy prison.” Rousseau positioned nature as an antidote to the corruption of society, within which all of humanity is incarcerated. By working with nature on the island, quarantined from the infectious influences of the outside world, he fostered a sense of autonomy and self-love.
Enlightenment ideas about the reformative power of sublime nature for the incarcerated traveled fast across the Atlantic. In the early days of the republic, northern penitentiaries were perceived as laboratories for the moral reform of wayward individuals. The “society” from which prisoners were removed was the inner city, described as a smoke-filled and grimy place where corruption ran rampant. Social reformers such as Robert Archey Woods felt that tenement dwellers were “almost predestined to a vicious if not criminal life.” Others maintained that criminality was a medical condition that could be easily transferred to others, and that perpetrators needed to be quarantined from the rest of the population; prison reformer Edward Livingston, for example, warned that “vice is more infectious than disease.” Much like cholera patients or the mentally insane, accused criminals were taken out of gray environments and placed in greener ones at the city’s edge. In early-19th-century New York City, for instance, prisoners were taken to Newgate Prison in Greenwich Village, which was then a collection of farms. With access to a garden and bath facilities, they were expected to benefit from the fresh air in this rural area.
Within this new environment, it was not only nature that would rehabilitate prisoners. Work itself was thought to be a corrective. Newgate, for instance, was founded upon the belief that “solitary confinement to hard labor and a total abstinence from spirituous liquors will prove the means of reforming these unhappy creatures.” One of the prison’s founders, a Quaker philanthropist named Thomas Eddy, felt that steady work and religion could reform an inmate’s morals and give him skills to find a more stable place in the social and economic order upon release. To this end, he put inmates to work in the nearby lumberyard or on the docks along the Hudson.
The same principle directed activities at other early penitentiaries in New York, such as Auburn Prison, near Buffalo, and Sing Sing prison, located along the Hudson River in Ossining. When Newgate prisoners were transferred to Sing Sing in 1825 due to overcrowding, they were tasked with building the prison itself, including their own cells, and producing food for the prison. Living in tents, they quarried the stone for the buildings that would confine them. Even after the prison was completed in 1828, they continued to do this work for profit-seeking contractors. “I never suffered so much in my life as I did during that time,” wrote former prisoner Horace Lane.
At Auburn, prisoners were leased out in local industries, including agriculture, animal husbandry, mining, textiles, and manufacturing, leading Charles Dickens to conclude that the prison was just like any other factory. Conveniently, while prisoners reaped the supposed benefits of hard work, the local economy profited from their labor, as did the institutions of correction themselves. Just as imperial penal colonies fed raw materials to mainland manufacturers, carceral institutions served as work camps, fueling the growth of industrialism and capitalism in the United States. The contribution of penal labor to the development of the young republic was so great, in fact, that it would become impossible to function without it.
New York City found its own penal colony in Rikers. Located less than ten miles from Manhattan, it offered an ideal site for a productive prison complex: Over four hundred acres of open land ripe for farming, far enough removed for New Yorkers to forget it exists but close enough to serve as a resource for the city that surrounds it. Even before it became an institution of confinement, the island was used as a municipal farm and dumpsite for a rapidly expanding metropolis. Prisoners from nearby Welfare Island grew vegetables and raised pigs for hospitals, mental asylums, and other penal institutions across the city. A Department of Corrections (DOC) report from 1930 noted that the Rikers farm “flourishes amazingly, notwithstanding the fact that the soil is not particularly good [being mostly] settled ground made by the garbage dumps… full of pieces of glass, tin brick, and other articles.” Inmates unloaded coal boats for the Department of Plant and Structures, and regulated dumps created by the Department of Street Cleaning for horse manure.
Prisoners on Rikers continued to serve the city after the opening of the penitentiary. Vegetation not only camouflaged the unsightliness of the prison from visitors to the 1939 World’s Fair and, later, from air travelers; its production also proved incredibly profitable. It was so profitable, in fact, that the DOC decided it would rather use land for cultivation than for garbage, redirecting trash to a new landfill on Staten Island. In 1941, a Corrections commissioner reported that “a hundred-acre farm, operated by fifty inmates under the supervision of skilled farm instructor raises a variety of vegetables. A piggery, with 700 swine, produces 110,000 pounds of pork annually. A greenhouse is now in use.” In the 1940s and 1950s, the DOC added a slaughterhouse and hennery. In 1954, prisoners on Rikers reportedly produced 13,945 pounds of chicken, 46,644 eggs, 52,193 pounds of vegetables, 75,000 trees for the parks department, 70,000 flowering shrubs and 270 peach trees, and around two million loaves of bread for city jails and schools.
During this time, DOC commissioner Anna M. Kross took a particular interest in the island’s tree and plant nursery, which had been created through a partnership with the New York City Parks Department under Robert Moses. “This cooperative venture,” she wrote in her first annual report in 1953, “between the Department of Correction and the Department of Parks… is a most productive program from both a financial and occupational therapeutic point of view.” That year alone, 5,010 trees (mostly London plane, zelkovas, ginkgoes, and honey locusts) and 15,500 shrubs were shipped to New York City, valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. New York City’s parks and streets were entirely populated by trees cultivated and maintained by Rikers inmates. Yet more important than the profitability of this endeavor, Kross noted, was the benefit to prisoners. “An average of two hundred alcoholic and sentenced narcotic addicts are assigned in separate groups and work gangs to maintain this gainful activity… the physical health of the men shows marked improvement here.” By the 1960s, in large part due to Kross’s arboreal interests, the tree nursery had grown from 69 to 275 acres, and contained more than 15,000 trees, three times the number of inmates. “Practically every tree you see in the city is grown right here,” Kross noted in a 1964 interview.
By the late 1960s, however, as Rikers’s population reached 10,000, the need for new jails as well as a bridge to transport prisoners usurped the profitability of the tree-planting business and farming operations. Rikers’s inmates were instructed to commit a tree massacre, tearing down 11,000 of the trees that they had helped to cultivate. They buried some in 9,000 large holes created for this purpose, and transferred others to parks, housing complexes, and streets across the city. Only five thousand were kept on the island itself. Administrators closed the hennery in 1962, and discontinued the tree nursery in the 1970s. The farm continued in reduced capacity until it was phased out in the 1990s, revived in 2000, and then finally closed in 2011 (currently, there are efforts to reinstate it).
Rather than growing food, in the early 1990s Rikers’s detainees and inmates started handling food waste as part of a new composting program introduced by Thomas Outerbridge and his successor at the Department of Sanitation, Robert LaValva. At the time, much like today, garbage was everywhere in New York City, both physically and mentally. The city had no overall waste plan until 1990, and by the end of the decade, responding to pressure from Staten Islanders, Mayor Guiliani and Governor Pataki had promised to close the 3,000-acre Staten Island Freshkills Landfill by 2001. As part of the city’s first waste management plan, Outerbridge and LaValva proposed a clever and pioneering solution: New York City’s waste could be reduced, they reasoned, by including food waste composting in new recycling efforts across the city.
The same characteristics that had made Rikers an obvious choice for a municipal farm now made it perfect for testing the next generation of landscape-shaping innovation. Most importantly, due to its status as a carceral facility, Rikers was exempt from the lengthy permitting process that projects in other parts of the city are subject to for the sake of the residents who live there. Circumventing community input, the Department of Sanitation built its $5 million composting facility on Rikers without much difficulty. Beyond such regulatory benefits, Rikers possessed a number of positive qualities that made it ideal for testing the potential of composting at the urban scale. As a jail complex rather than a prison, the daily population on Rikers fluctuated considerably, and all detainees and inmates received three meals a day. During the 1990s, when Rikers’s population exceeded 20,000, this resulted in an incredible amount of food waste, most of it “clean” waste or uneaten food. LaValva, who led the program from 1993 to 2000, explained: “people were constantly being bused in and out… this led to a lot of food waste… between 40 and 50 tons a day.”
Two or three outside contractors operated the composting machine. (In fact, the facility is technically unconnected to the Department of Corrections.) But as part of “kitchen work detail,” detainees sorted massive amounts of food waste, separating organics from plastics and other objects that could ruin the $5 million technology. From its inception to 2017, when New York City’s Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan included composting for the first time, the site on Rikers was a lab for adjusting the city’s composting technology, allowing it to finally be implemented on a large scale. The smell on Rikers was bad to begin with; composting made it worse. Yet it was presented as a necessary experiment for a cause bigger than any individual involved: improving the wellbeing of New Yorkers, and the environment itself.
Freed by Work
By the end of the 1990s, the 19th-century notion of work and nature as rehabilitative began to merge with society’s increasing focus on environmental cleanup. This proved extremely convenient for the City of New York, which since the late 1970s had begun relying on those under state supervision for public-sector maintenance work. As John Krinsky and Maud Simonet argue in Who Cleans the Park? Public Work and Urban Governance in New York City, the hard-won successes of municipal workers, including park laborers, to gain collective bargaining rights in the 1950s and 1960s led to a backlash. Employers cut costs by replacing municipal workers that had received steady incomes and benefits, with low-paid prisoners, former prisoners, and welfare recipients. “During the city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s,” they write, “the City pioneered the use of welfare recipients and volunteers to undercut lower-skilled unionized civil service jobs… The result has been that public investment in parks and their maintenance has been extremely uneven across the city and that the work to maintain these investments has fallen most on the shoulders of those who benefit least.”
As the prison population at Rikers and elsewhere grew dramatically in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, so too did the number of organizations offering jobs in park maintenance to prisoners, former prisoners, and those sentenced by the courts to community service. Individuals with few alternatives could be seen cleaning up Grand Central Terminal or working for park conservancies. On Rikers, the Fortune Society and Osborne Association offered job opportunities for returning detainees and inmates in asbestos and lead paint removal, and individuals from the Hort’s GreenHouse and GreenTeam programs (the latter for recently-released former GreenHouse participants) went to work for the Central Park Conservancy and other organizations.
Current and former inmates across the United States are increasingly involved in large-scale environmental cleanup projects. Perhaps the best exemplar of this trend is the use of prisoners to clean up the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Instead of hiring local workers, BP used men serving jail time in Louisiana prisons. This wasn’t only because the labor was cheap, but also because the company received a tax break — $2400 per individual — for hiring an at-risk “target group,” and were even able to recoup 40 percent of their wages. BP isn’t the only oil company to milk the potential of prison labor. The Marine Technology Training Center at the California Institution for Men in Chino, California, for instance, trains select inmates in deep sea diving — not to become sport divers or marine biologists, but instead divers, welders, riggers, and mechanics on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Much recent attention has focused on the California Conservation Corps, a group of inmates from the California Correctional Center-Susanville that fights blazing forest fires for $2 per day. The program’s ostensible goal to give prisoners some degree of autonomy and help get them out of prison broke down, however, once the state’s Attorney General opposed a motion to reduce prison populations because doing so “would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”
This astonishing statement exposes prison labor as an essential keystone in the economic infrastructure of the United States — our economy simply cannot function without it. While finding work can certainly be a first step toward better prospects for many individuals, the focus on skill-building and re-entry programs draws attention away from the underlying structural problem: A lack of opportunities in low-income urban neighborhoods that would prevent many men, women, and teenagers from going to jail in the first place. As Jiler pointed out, “The American educational system failed [a lot of these men and women] … They were not guided into other options.”
In the early twentieth century, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (named after the country of origin of slaves this former plantation), African American inmates were sometimes worked to death on its 18,000-acre prison farm, which is still in operation. One observer wrote in 1930 that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come.” Former warden Burl Cain reframes this story as he drives past prisoners working in the fields under the hot sun in a 1998 documentary film. Prisoners are “out in the sunshine,” he proclaims enthusiastically. “It’s good for you, it makes you healthier so you live longer. And it makes them less violent, too.”
The romance of nature and horticulture is deeply embedded in American life. In the management of incarcerated people, the rhetoric of nature’s reforming influence has been used both in sincere programs aimed at improving individual lives, and for the purposes of punishment and exploitation. Most programs function somewhere in the middle, offering personal benefits to some individuals but also, at the structural level, contributing to the creation of an underclass that will take on tasks that others avoid — American “untouchables.” With the largest prison population in the world, there is, perhaps, no landscape more shaped by incarceration than that of the United States.