The Happy Jail

Where do the street trees come from, and where does the compost go? Rikers Island was New York City's growing outpost for years. But does “greening” the jail always improve things for prisoners?
June 19, 2018, 10am PDT | UrbanOmnibus
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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 jail and 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?

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Published on Tuesday, June 19, 2018 in Urban Omnibus
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