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Paradigm Shift or a Perpetuation of Injustice: The Atlanta Prison Farm and the South River Forest

By Margaret Spalding

This month, the Atlanta Regional Commission kicked off a community input and pre-planning process for protecting greenspace in southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb County, an area also known as the South River Forest and of which the old Atlanta Prison Farm property located at 1420 Key Road is the linchpin. Georgia State University recently published a piece of work titled Injustice Hidden Deep in Atlanta’s Forest: The Old Atlanta Prison Farm and the South River. The Atlanta Community Press Collective has done extensive research on the Prison Farm, and Georgia Tech grad students are soon to release full architectural renderings of the barracks and a preservation strategy to “connect the lived experience of former inmates to the physical space that we see today”. 

Things are looking promising for the South River Forest, you might think. Past and present conditions are being exposed alongside initiatives to protect the environment and people. However, destructive acts are too easily repeated in vulnerable communities. Last month, a Land Disturbance Permit #1245564 was submitted by the Atlanta Police Foundation to the DeKalb County Department of Planning and Sustainability for the development of a massive police and fire training facility, slated to be the largest in our country, on the historic Prison Farm property, much of which is mature forest. 

“Prison Farming” is a product of the Jim Crow era that endures to this day. A formalized system of free labor and servitude, the Atlanta Prison Farm was defined by racist and inhumane practices, violence, overcrowded, wretched conditions, and grueling labor that often led to the death of inmates. Having provided great economic prosperity to the city, the Atlanta Prison Farm functioned until around 1990. Documented to be an overcrowded “ungodly mess” of brutality, the Prison Farm represents an era in Atlanta, the state of Georgia and, indeed, our country’s history that cannot be dismissed or forgotten. Imprisoned people, often arrested for drunkenness, worked on countless municipal construction projects including building many of the roads we drive on today. Now, the Prison Farm takes the limelight, precariously exposed to fresh eyes and new generations as it is poised to be leveled and replaced with another facility of systemic human control.

Because this site is an island of Atlanta-owned property surrounded by unincorporated DeKalb County, the fate of people’s backyards is being determined by elected officials that they cannot vote for. The proposed facility, its gun ranges, explosives, chemical and toxic contamination of soil, air, and waterways, clearcutting of urban forest, erasure of significant prehistoric and historic injustices, and the degradation of public land and natural resources are a perpetuation of disinvestment in south DeKalb County communities and the environment. Whatever the outcome, the benefits of the proposed training facility, as argued by some, will never serve the people of unincorporated DeKalb County. This burden should not be theirs to bear.

Amidst widespread controversy, will the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County continue to suffocate the southeast metro area with crumbling infrastructure, landfills, illegal dumps, industrial parks, prison complexes, ammunition and explosives ranges, and a blanket of neglect? Or will they confront historic and ongoing injustice by investing in marginalized communities and their environment?

(Margaret Spalding is the Executive Director of the South River Watershed Alliance [] and Founding member, South River Forest Coalition [].)

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