Climate change poses special risks to the “health and safety” of incarcerated populations as well as to the impoverished communities most of them come from, according to the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH).
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 AJPH said in an editorial accompanying a special supplement devoted to the “health impacts of carceral systems.”
“Mass incarceration, health inequity, and the climate emergency are all intertwined, in…ways that no single field can address on its own.”
The editorial argued that residents of poor communities are victimized first by the lack of health services and adequate infrastructure, often exacerbated by pollution and other environmental hazards, and then, “if they do end up incarcerated, climate change directly threatens their health and safety.”
Environmental catastrophes have already posed special threats to incarcerated populations, the journal notes.
During Hurricane Katrina, for example, inmates in the Orleans Parish Prison were “abandoned without power, water, food, or proper ventilation and chest-deep in water,” and inmates of Rikers Island jail in New York City were vulnerable to the lack of an evacuation plan during Hurricane Sandy, the journal said.
The editorial called for new infrastructure investments in poor communities “devastated by mass incarceration,” as a means of strengthening their ability to address environmental risks.
“Most incarcerated people come from a handful of neighborhoods, primarily communities of color, in US major cities, (and) most new prisons are built in rural hinterlands,” the editorial said. “Both sets of spaces have experienced chronic disinvestment over decades of deindustrialization, deregulation, and economic austerity.
“These processes undermine the health and well-being of people of color, indigenous people, and migrants.”
Poor urban communities of color and marginalized rural areas have been victims of “organized abandonment”—left to grapple with few jobs, and decaying housing stock in areas that have been “ecologically and economically devastated,” the journal said.
The fact that in many rural areas, correctional facilities have become the major source of employment reinforces the environmental risks.
“At each end of the prison-industrial complex, fragile communities and delicate ecologies bear the brunt of expanded carceral infrastructure rather than investment, regeneration, and cultivation,” said the editorial.
According to the journal, prison building itself can also cause environmental damage, citing a successful 2014 lawsuit against the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama for dumping 800 000 gallons of sewage into nearby creeks.
“In Letcher County, Kentucky, local anti-prison activists and environmental groups blocked a new federal prison on the grounds that it would contaminate local watersheds, pollute the air, and threaten endangered wildlife habitats, including a rare old-growth forest,” added the editorial.
But the threats posed to the environment by mass incarceration also have created “unprecedented” new opportunities, the editorial continued.
“Virtually all of the most ambitious proposals to tackle the climate emergency implicate fundamental social determinants of health,” it said. “These include massive public investments to decarbonize the economy by 2030; the creation of millions of new jobs to achieve decarbonization and a just transition; targeted investments in environmental justice communities for decarbonization and adaptation; and fully funded social services such as universal health care and housing.
“These exact same measures also could be the route to decarceration and the elimination of health disparities in the United States.”
According to the AJPH, investment in infrastructure, renewable energies and affordable housing could “make a huge difference in the lives of people in or at risk for contact with the criminal justice system.”
The editorial and other articles in the special issue can be downloaded here.