Climate change, on top of a long list of societal inequities, disproportionately harms incarcerated people in the U.S., a multi-part Intercept investigation led by Alleen Brown reveals. California, Texas, and Florida have the highest incarcerated populations and also face some of the most frequent and extreme impacts of climate change.
Heat, Fires, and Floods
Justin Phillips, who has a kidney condition that makes him especially vulnerable to heat, was forced to live in an unair-conditioned segregation cell in a Texas state prison where he regularly endured dangerous heat indices as high as 127°F. Greg Abbot has been fighting against air-conditioning Texas prisons since before he became governor.
Last year in California, a state notorious for its use of incarcerated (slave) labor to fight wildfires, the Dixie Fire cut power to a state prison in Susanville, leaving the people incarcerated there padlocked in dark, smoky cells and scared of what would happen if the flames reached the prison. With no way to quickly unlock the padlocks (the cells are usually locked and unlocked electronically), Joseph Vejar, who was chair of the prison’s inmate advisory council, told The Intercept, “We never had any evacuation drills … I never heard of them having a plan for evacuation.” The guards, according to an incarcerated person granted anonymity, had plans, however. “The COs would laugh at us and tell us, ‘You effers are going to stay in your cell,'” an incarcerated person granted anonymity said.
As Tropical Storm Elsa dumped rain on a Florida state prison last summer, incarcerated people were trapped in their cells for hours as water filled with human waste, snakes, and bugs rose to knee depth before they were evacuated. The flooding there, and at myriad other carceral facilities across the U.S. — built in the wake of mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the 1980s and ’90s — was predictable based on flood risk data, The Intercept reports.
‘Chickens coming home to roost’
“Most of the infrastructure we have now was built in [the] 1980s and 1990s,” Molly Gill, vice president of policy for FAMM, an organization focused on sentencing reform, told The Intercept. “We built all these prisons when we passed mandatory sentencing laws and had our prison booms and embarked on mass incarceration,” she said. “All those chickens are coming home to roost.” (Incarcerated series overview: The Intercept; Texas heat: The Intercept; California fires: The Intercept; Florida flooding: The Intercept; Climate Signals background: Extreme heat and heatwaves, Wildfires, Flooding, Hurricanes)