Hurricane Ida was the second strongest storm to hit Louisiana over the last three centuries, dwarfing the beast that was Katrina. As virtually every Gulf Coast city was put under evacuation orders, thousands of incarcerated people were forced to stay put, some in flooded facilities that lacked electricity and running water, and had sustained intense rain damage.
With phone calls limited and mandatory cell time initiated for weeks, people on the outside struggled to know whether their loved ones were OK. It was one of many recent examples where imprisoned people were unwillingly put “on the front lines of climate change,” Loyola University professor Andrea Armstrong said at the time.
As the severe weather season approaches and hurricanes, wildfires, and extreme heat ramp up simultaneously, the connections between pollution, severe weather, policing, and incarceration have been laid bare. A growing number of academics and activists have called on the government to address the sometimes deadly connections. Late last year, the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council recommended that the White House begin seriously considering the environmental and climate implications of incarceration.
Those with limited mobility – the disabled, low-income, and incarcerated – regularly find themselves at the mercy of others. But during disasters, what usually keeps people alive is having the ability to move freely, whether fleeing or hunkering down.
Evidenced by the hurricanes washing away Southern communities, the wildfires routinely sweeping across the West, and the sweltering heat throughout the country, there have been preventable losses of life.
America’s most vulnerable are forced to navigate the climate crisis and the criminal justice system at the same time.
Climate justice connects the climate crisis to social, racial, and environmental issues. It recognizes the disproportionate effects of climate change on low-income and people of color.
Often, those incarcerated and overpoliced come from neighborhoods where racism and divestment have caused environmental injustices, such as pollution exposure, and contributed to making severe weather events, like heat waves, more intense. Then, as climate disasters hit, they’re incarcerated in facilities increasingly threatened by climate change without decision-making power when crises hit.
Because of the invisible nature of incarceration, experts argue that many people don’t value the lives of those imprisoned because they’re hidden away. But in the U.S., where more people are imprisoned than anywhere else in the world, incarcerated people represent a large share of the American population and deserve to be protected from disasters.
“Because incarcerated folks are completely powerless, most people in society embrace this disenfranchisement and environmental violence,” David Pellow, director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Capital B last year. “This practice is an amplified case of environmental racism.”
How are the crises connected?
The climate crisis is increasingly intersecting with the criminal justice system. Policing, incarceration, and climate change are issues rooted in structures and policy choices that have shaped life outcomes for decades.
Redlining, segregation, and everyday racism has forced Black folks into the country’s toxic corridors, where jobs have been sparse, safe housing has been made rare, and pollution is concentrated. The lived experiences across generations have shown that this reality has made surviving difficult, especially compared to the white and wealthy.
The dirtier the air you breathe and water you drink, the more likely you are to be living in poverty, exposed to severe weather events, and impacted by the criminal justice system – and it’s all intensified by race, particularly being Black, which adds a plethora of other stressors to life in America.
In 2018, researchers found that the United States had made “no progress” in reducing the income and wealth gap between Black and white households over the past 70 years, and as dozens of studies have shown: the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be incarcerated.
And regardless of income level, Black folks are exposed to the most pollution from every type of source (industry, agriculture, all vehicles, construction, and residential) when compared to any other racial group in the U.S. This has been connected to incarceration as well. A 2021 study found that children exposed to higher levels of air pollution had a greater likelihood of being incarcerated.
Exposure to pollution has been linked to poor decision-making abilities as pollutants enter the bloodstream, impacting mood and brain chemistry. In one Los Angeles-based study between 2005 and 2013, researchers found that even when controlled for many social, economic, and circumstantial variables like weather, violent crime was 6.1% higher on days with dirty air than on days with clean air.
Likewise, climate disasters create unique levels of stress, pulling on the fight-or-flight mindset that has also been associated with diminished thought processing capabilities. It doesn’t help that in times of disaster and stress, victims of weather events are also overpoliced, as seen during Hurricane Katrina, when 11 people were shot, five dying at the hands of New Orleans police.
Ultimately, environmental injustices and climate events have “created a jail and prison pipeline,” according to Yvonka Hall, director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition. “We’re poisoned, starting as children. We find lead in our blood and bones. Then, it stops our ability to fully develop cognitively, causing poor decision-making.”
“Then, you add the fact that many of our communities are poor. They’ve created a jail and prison pipeline,” she explained.
Why is incarceration an environmental injustice issue?
Over the last several decades, academics, community organizers, and incarcerated people have progressively called the act of incarceration “toxic.”
Extending beyond the nature of imprisonment and solitary confinement, stakeholders point out the high concentration of facilities on poisoned land and the particular risk that these facilities have to be impacted by wildfires, flooding, and extreme heat.
With that severe risk, incarcerated people have also been made into climate workers, who’ve fortified buildings against floods and fought wildfires across the West.
As other residents evacuated to safety during Hurricane Ida in 2021, dozens of inmates — some reportedly detained pretrial — were recorded filling up sandbags to protect county-owned properties against flooding. In California, imprisoned people make up roughly one-third of all wildland firefighters.
One-third of all state and federal prisons are located within a health-altering proximity to a federal Superfund site, a designation given to the country’s most toxic sites. In addition, there are more than 620 U.S. jails and prisons with extreme risk for flooding, at least 54 facilities with high risk for wildfire damage, and an excess of 220 institutions where there are more than ten days annually over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Within the next century, researchers estimate that 3,500 of the 6,500 U.S. jails and prisons will be impacted by extreme heat, floods, or wildfires.
Despite the knowledge that these facilities are at risk, dozens of jails have been proposed to be built on toxic land over the last several years. In the Midwest, a 2022 Capital B analysis found at least 23 jails — costing $3.6 billion — have been either proposed or constructed on contaminated lands since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Midwest and Appalachia region exemplify the growth of toxic jails as new facilities have served as an economic replacement for the waning coal and steel industries. Still, across the country, county jails are typically placed in Black communities, where incarcerated people remain exposed to the environmental and health risks that sometimes plagued them as children.
“In Black and Latino communities, we’re told our lives are disposable, just like the land is,” Royal Ramey, a formerly incarcerated wildland firefighter, told Capital B last year.`