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Climate change puts the health and lives of incarcerated people at risk

People in prison are used to help in times of crisis, but they don't have help when they need it most.
Tamar Sarai Davis November 18th, 2020
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In the midst of the new threats that have surfaced this year—namely the COVID-19 outbreak—people have been grappling with the fact that even when the pandemic ends and personal and government mandated lockdowns are lifted, the world will still have to contend with a planet that is rapidly deteriorating and becoming increasingly uninhabitable. In 2019, the earth’s surface temperature was around 0.95 Celsius degrees warmer than the 20th century average, and recent years have seen global temperatures that have consistently been among the hottest on record. If the not-too-recent past is any template for what’s to come, it will be incarcerated people who will be among those bearing the biggest brunt of these changes, both due to the conditions inside and how their labor is extracted to help make life easier for those in the free world in the wake of natural disasters.  

In the past two decades, Departments of Corrections as well as local and state facilities have been reluctant to address the impact that a warming planet is posing to incarcerated populations—and this is true even in states that are being hit the hardest. While Americans across the country will feel the impact of these changes in decades to come, southern states as well as low-lying coastal states will be most devastated at first. Experts say that flooding will be an acute problem in places like Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and parts of Maryland. Extreme heat coupled with droughts will severely impact states like California, where forest fires can rip through communities, worsen air quality, and potentially take lives. Rising temperatures have already accounted for hotter and longer heat waves as well as an increase in storms, floods, and droughts.

According to Prison Legal News, many prisons are built upon environmentally sensitive lands, rendering them uniquely vulnerable to floods and damages wrought by hurricanes and storms. However, despite this vulnerability, lawmakers and jail administrators have been unwilling to evacuate buildings or even release those who are detained pretrial, those approaching the end of their sentences, or those who were incarcerated on low-level offenses. This was perhaps best exemplified in the weeks prior to Hurricane Katrina when prison officials in New Orleans failed to evacuate those who posed a low threat to public safety. Soon after Katrina, officials similarly failed to craft safety procedures when Hurricane Rita hit a few months later. 

A lack of contingency plans during tornadoes, hurricanes, and other major storms create negative ripple effects beyond just potential flooding. Storms can contaminate sewage systems, a particularly alarming issue considering that incarcerated people are unable to adequately treat impotable water by boiling it, as those on the outside can. Major storms can create food supply shortages compromising access to food and clean drinking water. Other issues cited have included overflowed toilets which have been shown to facilitate the spread of disease and the development of infections.

“This year's hurricane season has definitely been the worst and we can expect every year to be more erratic and extreme in terms of hurricane conditions,” said Mei Azaad, an organizer with Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP), in an interview with Prism. FTP is an abolitionist coalition that does work at the intersection of public health, environmental justice, and prison abolition. This summer, FTP mobilized their member community around Hurricane Laura, the deadly storm that made landfall in Louisiana. FTP tracks hurricanes and develops relationships with those who are incarcerated to stay abreast of conditions inside. As they learn about the storm's path, they share information with those inside about what they can do to best prepare themselves. Once states or cities identify mandatory evacuation zones, FTP then applies pressure to local and federal agencies demanding the evacuation of detention centers, juvenile facilities, prisons, and jails.

“So it's actually a lot of triage work,” said Azaad. “Like, let's find out what facilities are in this area, which of them are the most vulnerable to flooding, which of them might be medical facilities, and just doing our best to kind of target areas that we know have had problems in the past.”

Typically, agencies that do evacuate people send them to other facilities, but with the threat of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing, FTP has had to pivot their demands.

“This year, our narrative and demands have been much more around mass releases and doing evacuations in a COVID-safe way that involves quarantine,” said Azaad. “Making sure that the DOC and the feds know that we're watching them is a huge part of the work. It's just like, ‘Hey, we know that you're not evacuating people and we are paying attention and demanding that you do and demanding that you do it in as safe a way as possible.’”

Despite the lack of protocol and adequate effort to address the impact of major storms on incarcerated populations, natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes do garner more public attention because of the visible damage that they cause. These major natural disasters dominate the news cycle and increasingly inspire the creation of campaigns and public pleas in a way that issues like extreme heat do not. As global temperatures rise and heat waves grow more dire and longer however, extreme heat has become a significant problem for those inside

Extreme heat can cause dehydration, heat stroke, renal failure, increased aggression, and suicidal ideations. The health profile of incarcerated populations only renders these problems even more distressing. Research has shown that decades-long to lifetime sentences have created a rapidly growing population of elderly people inside—a population that is more likely to suffer from heat-related ailments. In New York state, for example, the number of incarcerated people over 50 years old has doubled since 2000 with the elderly now comprising 20% of the total state prison population. Further, investments on the federal, state, and local level into incarceration and divestment from meaningful mental health care has led to an incarcerated population that is overwhelmingly dealing with mental health disorders. These disorders are often treated with psychotropic medication that can make it less able for bodies to regulate heat and naturally cool down, rendering extreme heat particularly dangerous.

In addition to the impact that natural disasters and climbing temperatures have on prison conditions, corrections and detention facilities themselves are also what Azaad referred to as “polluting establishments” that impact not just those inside, but those in surrounding communities. Prison construction can lead to wastewater mismanagement in the towns that they are built within and can cause potential habitat loss as well. These facilities are also often constructed on top of toxic sites.

In 2014, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition conducted a year-long study looking at State Correctional Institution-Fayette, a maximum security facility in Pennsylvania located next to a coal ash dump containing 40 million tons of coal. The study found that those incarcerated were suffering from a host of illnesses as a result of the facility’s location. There were reports of cancer, respiratory conditions, blurred vision, hair loss, and more. Additionally, residents of the largely Black and brown town of Labelle that surrounded the facility suffered from similar conditions.

“I can’t even control my body anymore,” Nicholas Morrissey, an incarcerated man at SCI-Fayette told the study’s researchers. “My life has been completely changed in the last year... I went from an athletic and healthy person to a frail sickly man who can barely walk.”

While fundamental elements of correctional facilities, such as the sites upon which they are built as well as the insulating materials used during facility construction can exacerbate these health complications, there are notable opportunities for corrections administrators and political decision makers to remedy these structural inefficiencies—opportunities that many have willingly chosen not to take.

In 2014, voters in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, approved funding to build a new jail only after local officials promised that the proposed facility would not have air conditioning. Air conditioning, in this case, was considered exorbitantly expensive and a luxury or comfort item, notwithstanding the fact that summer temperatures crept above 100 degrees and many prisoners within the parish struggled with ailments that made them particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, at least 13 states in the hottest regions of the country do not have universal air conditioning in their prison and jail facilities.

The idea that incarcerated people are not deserving of the adverse and often deadly impacts of inclement weather bleeds into how lawmakers and facility administrators exploit them in the aftermath of these disasters—using their labor to aid recovery efforts for those in the free world.

It has been well reported how climate change and the increase in forest fires has impacted imprisoned populations, who fight some of the deadliest fires in states like California. Despite their live-saving work, many of those very firefighters are unable to secure employment in local fire departments following their release. However, state and county officials have also sought out incarcerated labor in the wake of major storms, particularly hurricanes. In 2012, those incarcerated at Rikers Island in New York provided laundry services to a dozen emergency shelters in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. According to Prison Legal News, the jail also provided food and generators to help New York City residents during recovery efforts in the aftermath of the storm. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit Florida and incarcerated people in Dorchester County Detention Center were required to help fill 12,000 sandbags and later assist in clean up efforts at several county buildings. After Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, the Florida Department of Corrections deployed 180 work squads to assist in debris cleanup efforts without pay.

As overwhelmingly warm days are coming to an end, advocates from FTP are still warning the public that environmental threats continue to abound. Particularly for facilities in the Northeast, extreme cold can create equally deadly conditions. Just last February, reports emerged out of the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), a jail in Brooklyn, New York, that the facility had been without power and heat for days. People detained inside reported congestion, sore throats, extreme cold, and the inability to purchase blankets or sweatshirts from the commissary. If conditions at MDC are a harbinger for what's to come, communities must start mobilizing now, advocates at FTP urged.

The group, which operates primarily in the South, Southeast, and West coast is currently working with Northeast-based organizations to coordinate plans for how to respond when there are freezing temperatures, broken windows, or potential power outages. This winter season will be especially troubling given the fact that COVID-19 rates are only getting higher. Colder temperatures and weakened immune systems will leave those inside—those caged in facilities in largely rural areas that already have lower hospital capacity—especially vulnerable to the virus.

Perhaps the most crucial first step to garnering the level of public support needed to face these challenges is bridging together conversations about incarceration and climate justice that are currently siloed away from one another. Azaad says that will require a “decolonizing” and expanding our conception of the environment, observing how in mainstream society, there’s the idea that the environment—associated more with nature, forests, clean water, endangered animals—is separate from where people live, when in truth, they’re one and the same.

“For me, when I'm on the phone with my comrade who's in solitary or my comrade who's in a moldy place with extreme heat and poisoned water, that's my friend's environment, you know? And I think it's important to remember that human spaces are environments,” said Azaad. “The air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the food that we eat, the space where we rest is also an environment. So I think that it's important to get rid of that separation of nature and social issues.”


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