Paradise Imagined: Environmental Peace Education in Carceral Spaces

By Elsa Barron

Where does the material that makes up a tree come from? When asked that question, many of our students turned to the soil for answers, inferring that a tree pulls itself out of the dense matter of the ground. However, the real answer is quite the opposite. A tree, amazingly, pulls itself out of thin air. It is an accumulated mass of carbon dioxide gas that ultimately forms the strong trunks and towering branches of our world. In a class of students at DePaul Academy, an alternative justice center in South Bend, Indiana, we asked everyone to pause, take a deep breath in… and out… and meditate on the interconnectedness of that breath. The oxygen from that breath may have come from the respiration of the trees just outside of the window, while the carbon dioxide we expelled might soon be taken back up by the seedlings we planted in the classroom for photosynthesis. Every moment of our living, breathing life reminds us that we are part of a community- kin with unlikely tree-folk and many others. 

However, many systems and structures are designed to disconnect us from that kinship, and possibly none more than carceral architecture. Foucault argues that the brute power of the state is well represented by its carceral structures. In his work, he particularly emphasizes the physical environment of prisons; the architecture is representative of a larger system of biopower where the state is able to survey and control bodies, subduing the larger society into conformity (Foucault 1979). These structures of punishment, surveillance, and intimidation lie far off from the realization of peace and justice and provide unique challenges to peace education and relationship building within the context of the criminal justice system. 

Previous studies in prisons have revealed that engagement with nature is helpful in moderating stress levels, contributing to healing, and developing community (Brown et al. 2015, Moran and Turner 2019). In the Nordic context, which seeks to integrate green space into the prison environment, “watching clouds, birds, daylight, weather and so on could enhance rehabilitation and diminish physical and psychological violence” (Moran and Jewkes 2014). In contrast, concerns in the UK around cost and security have led to a barren architecture that enforces a physical structure of punishment (Moran and Turner 2019). The design of carceral spaces relates closely to the potential of the justice system to be restorative or punitive, to create peace or perpetuate violence.

In response to this research, we designed and implemented a sustainability curriculum with a particular focus on environmental justice and access to nature for a cohort of at-risk students at DePaul Academy, an organization in South Bend, Indiana that serves as an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system and focuses on providing more holistic support to its students.  The curriculum followed a general three-part progression: first, a basic introduction to sustainability with climate science woven throughout the curriculum, second, framing the environment and sustainability through a justice lens, and third, grounding these topics in personal experiences in order to translate them to new ideas and action to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. 

In week one, we showed students a video of a newborn praying mantis battling a jumping spider. While the praying mantis had almost no defense mechanisms, it assumed a large, menacing pose, threatening the spider until it ultimately backed off. As we reflected on the video as a part of our exploration of how humans relate to nature, we asked students if they connected to the insects. One student remarked that he connected with the praying mantis because he had witnessed how humans demonstrate the same kind of behavior- when we are threatened, we often try to make ourselves look big and tough to avoid getting hurt. In the classroom, accusations began to fly about who had practiced this behavior recently, trying to act tough to hide inner weakness. The students were realizing that we are not so different from the world around us. In fact, we might find ourselves kin with a baby praying mantis or a jumping spider.

In week three, we asked the students to share with us which animal they connected most with and why. One student remarked that he was a flying fish. He explained that he couldn’t survive fully in the water or in the air. No matter where he went, he was always at risk of trouble, or even death. We were amazed by the profound and vulnerable nature of this reflection that came from such a simple question about how we relate to animals. We learned that if the space for reflection and connection was provided, students would fill it with their own experiences and identities. 

In week five, we had students map their communities, making note of ten important landmarks. After mapping out these landmarks, we had students reflect on the environmental elements of their maps- did they have access to green space? Fresh produce? Bodies of water? Public transportation? We then asked students to think about three changes they would like to see made to their map- either adding or removing elements to make them more environmentally just and sustainable. One student shared that he would like to see the corner gas station in his neighborhood replaced with a farm. Another explained that he wanted to build a community park with lights that would stay on at night to keep people safe (and for late-night basketball playing). Through this exercise, we engaged in the first steps of futurism: imagining how the world could be different. In this case, students, as the experts on their home communities, were able to begin identifying and imagining ways that their homes could be made more sustainable, relational, and peaceful. 

Over the course of the class, we were able to see students’ conceptions of nature evolve. In initial conversations, students almost always indicated positive, yet distant ideas of nature. Students used words such as “healthy” to describe the natural world, equating all things natural with goodness and wellbeing. Therefore, introducing concepts such as climate change and environmental degradation required a significant shift in student thought. The assumption of nature as healthy was likely the result of a common misconception: that nature exists far away from our own lives. Similarly, it is a common misconception in the field of peace studies that nature is unrelated to structures of violence and is irrelevant to the process of building peace. 

Beckoff theorizes that a disconnect from our Earthly home is dangerous in that it maintains unrealistic conceptions of the natural world and allows students to remain unaware of their inherent relationship with Earth (Bekoff 2014). To address this dangerous disconnect, we relied heavily on experiential learning to impactfully connect students to course content. Experiential learning not only responded to students’ lack of access to the natural world but also actively engaged and empowered students to make the education their own.

For students in a carceral setting, in which their personal lives and possessions are heavily regulated, access to physical materials is especially important. When we would bring physical objects from the environment for the students to encounter, we observed a heightened level of care, as students wanted to collect, examine, and preserve these new treasures. For example, when we brought in leaves for students to sketch, students did not simply want to observe the leaves for drawing, but held the leaves in their hands, and then pressed them into their binders to take with them. Introducing physical objects, especially natural objects, to the classroom fundamentally altered the students’ environment in a positive way.

Early in our program, several students expressed a desire for the “fresh air” of nature, calling themselves “locked in” at DePaul. Our students clearly longed for connection with the natural world, but it wasn’t accessible to them. Environmental peacebuilding education seeks to work with students’ experiences to draw them into a fruitful relationship with the world around them. These relationships can be the foundation for healing from trauma and rebuilding peaceful communities.  

Every breath of fresh air that our students longed for is actually a practice of relationship-building. It is a dance with the trees in the exchange of life-giving gases. It is a reminder that our bodies are tied up in a global system, one that currently faces existential challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. However, these breaths give us the energy and hope to imagine a different kind of future. This future emphasizes relationship over extraction, restoration over punishment, and peace over injustice. With this vision, it is possible to say that paradise is not only lost, but that it might also, one day, be found.


Beckoff, Marc. 2014. Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence. Novato, California: New World Library, 

Brown, Geraldine, Bos, Elizabeth, Brady, Geraldine, Kneafsey, Moya, and Glynn, 

Martin. 2015. “An Evaluation of the Master Gardener Programme at HMP Rye Hill: A Horticultural Intervention with Substance Misusing Offenders.” 

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Moran, D. and Jewkes, Y. 2014. “”Green” Prisons: Rethinking the “sustainability” of the Carceral Estate.” Geographica Helvetica 69, no. 5: 345-53.

Moran, Dominique, and Turner, Jennifer. 2019. “Turning over a New Leaf: The Health-enabling Capacities of Nature Contact in Prison.” Social Science & Medicine 231: 62-69.



Elsa Barron is a community organizer with Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light and a Research Assistant at the Wilson Center Environmental Change and Security Program and the Center for Climate & Security. She also works as an Environmental Journalist at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines and as a freelance writer. Her writing has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and the Hill, among others. In addition to writing, she is the host of the podcast, Olive Shoot, which highlights reasons for hope in the midst of the climate crisis through the diverse angles and approaches of environmental peacebuilding around the world. Elsa Barron graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame with majors in biological sciences and peace studies and a minor in sustainability. As a part of her senior capstone, Barron collaborated with a fellow student, Karli Siefker, to develop and implement an environmental education program designed for youth caught up in the criminal justice system. Upon her graduation, Barron was awarded the Glynn Award for academic excellence and leadership and the Yarrow Award for the potential to shape the field of peace studies. She was also awarded a Fulbright Grant to study environmental violence and peacebuilding in India