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How and where do histories of incarceration and conservation collide? How do infrastructures of policing and caging in particular locales shape natural landscapes as well as built environments in ways that perpetuate social injustices? In California beginning in the 1950s, social control met with environmental management in the form of state programs that put incarcerated people – disproportionately nonwhite – to work clearing stream beds, managing rangeland, landscaping for soil erosion control, and everything in between. Set on the dusty shores of southern California’s Salton Sea, this talk examines how racial and settler colonial systems of imprisonment, policing, and incarceration have operationalized the larger conservation goals of the state. This history reveals how different forms of carceral violence, codified and extralegal alike, functioned as technologies internal to settler colonialism in the communities surrounding the Salton Sea and came to built into this landscape in ways that perpetuated seething social inequities and practices of racial violence. This paper argues that the sea’s history has been tied to jails and chains in often surprising ways: as the body of water around which this history played out, as the ecological enabler of settler life in its agricultural zones, and as a physical feature of the landscape that shaped and was shaped by patterns of incarceration and the experiences of incarcerated people.


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