The Staggering Interconnectivity of Mass Incarceration and Climate Change

Five years ago a report from Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law warned that rising temperatures from global warming would strain the already overburdened U.S. correctional system and imperil the health of inmates and penal employees alike.

In California these past several weeks, this warning became reality as two prisons in Vacaville, CA (the epicenter of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire) were not evacuated as wildfires approached, even though surrounding neighborhoods were instructed to leave. Prisoners were given masks, though were likely exposed to dangerous levels of wildfire smoke from the adjacent fires.

What’s worse is that prisons are not part of national disaster plans, and when disasters do strike, the safety of inmates is often an afterthought.

Why This Matters: As NPR reported, California has used inmates to fight wildfires since the 1940s, paying inmates between $2 and $5 a day. Yet prisoners themselves–products of America’s staggering incarceration rates–are exposed to environmental hazards and climate threats inside of prisons that are certainly cruel and unusual.

This is why some view the Green New Deal as an opportunity to transform our society at the same time that it helps alleviate mass incarceration by providing jobs, housing, all while centering social justice.

Climate Impact on Criminal Justice: When climate-related natural disasters hit, they destroy public buildings including courthouses and jails. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the massive storm damaged the Harris County Criminal Justice Center which acts as a central nervous system for criminal justice proceedings in the country’s third-largest county. As EcoWatch reported, Harvey hit the courthouse with a one-two punch, as four feet of floodwater damaged the lower levels and increased water pressure burst pipes on higher floors.

  • When a courthouse that serves 4.5 million people is damaged, an already backed-up legal system gets even more inefficient.
  • The city was forced to close the building after water damage knocked out 40 courtrooms on the center’s 20 floors. Jury trials were delayed as the district scrambled to find spaces to hold court.
  • Most hearings in subsequent months took place in the crowded jail basement, where prosecutors, defenders and their clients were forced into close quarters in the limited space available.

People awaiting trial, many of them unable to afford cash bail, were stuck in jail for extended periods of time due to the backed up courts.

Hazards on the Inside: Prisons are often built on land known to be rife with environmental hazards. As Mother Jones explained, “nearly 600 federal and state prisons are within three miles of a Superfund site on the National Priorities List, and more than  100 of those are just one mile from a site.

For instance, as NRDC wrote, the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette, a maximum-security prison in La Belle, Pennsylvania, had a history of prisoners being poisoned by exposure to toxic coal ash while inadequate medical attention failed to identify the source of ailments seen in the prison population.

And in California, Mother Jones added, inmates are getting sick from an illness known as valley fever, which is caused by a fungus found in the soil in the state’s central valley region and spread by breathing in dust particles.

  • People of color are more at risk of contracting the disease which comes with flu-like symptoms.
  • The spread of the fungus will be accelerated by climate change.

And as extreme heat is made worse by climate change, sweltering conditions inside of prisons routinely kill prisoners. 

Additionally, water inside of prisons is frequently contaminated with toxins like arsenic and lead while prison facilities themselves often leak wastewater into nearby waterways

Cycles of Injustice: The American Journal of Public Health published research this year that connects the dots between mass incarceration, health equity, and climate change. As the Crime Report summarized, “Minorities and poor people, who make up the largest groups impacted by the criminal justice system, “bear the greatest burdens” of environmental threats, and their burdens are aggravated when they are confined to prisons in threatened areas.”

The editorial accompanying the report explained the following:

The extractions involved in forcibly removing residents from their neighborhoods to be warehoused in massive, faraway, high-security institutions cause enormous injury to humans and habitats alike.

  • These processes undermine the health and well-being of people of color, indigenous people, and migrants—the same groups that are then targeted by the criminal justice system as the state’s favored mode of crisis abatement.
  • These same groups will bear the greatest burdens of climate change. In cities, in the neighborhoods with the highest incarceration rates, residential segregation makes it significantly more likely for people of color to live in high-risk heat-island conditions than for White people, who are more likely to benefit from cooling greenery.
  • The result is eco-apartheid: the rich benefit from luxurious adaptation and mitigation while everyone else faces deteriorating environmental and social conditions.
  • Displaced poor and working-class residents end up on the street, incarcerated, or pushed further to the urban periphery.


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