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Report: US Jails And Prisons Ill Equipped For Global Warming

A new study published by the Columbia Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law [PDF] found US jails and prisons grossly unfit for dealing with rising temperatures, which place inmate and staff health at risk. The study urged policy makers and administrators to begin taking steps to prepare for heat waves associated with climate change.

Extreme heat is the most common weather-related cause of death in the US, and prisoners are no exception. Last October, New York City settled with the family of a mentally ill homeless man named Jerome Murdough for $2.25 million. Murdough baked to death in a cell, unsupervised at the mental observation unit on Rikers Island after he was unable to make his $2,500 bail for trespassing.

Richmond, Virginia, settled a $2.99 million lawsuit this year after an inmate suffered heat stroke at a jail in 2012, where temperatures reached 108 degrees. A 2012 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted a jail medical expert who said the death rate at the hot and crowded facility was “2.5 times higher than the average annual death rate at jails of similar size across the country from 2000 through 2007.”

According to The Atlantic’s CityLab, fourteen Texas inmates in nine state prisons have “died from exposure to extremely high temperatures” between 2007 and 2014.

“Until now, the implications of climate change for corrections have been largely disregarded by both correctional administrators and public officials working on climate adaptation policy,” Columbia Law School visiting scholar Daniel Holt wrote in the report. The purpose of the study is to connect climate and corrections policy, identifying vulnerabilities to high temperatures within the corrections system.

Those vulnerabilities pose great challenges to mounting a timely and adequate climate change adaptation plan. It is unlikely there can be a single plan to fix the problem.

Facilities in America’s vast prison system vary in size, age, architecture and security level. They are are also constructed from a wide range of materials and have distinct layouts, complicating adaptation planning.

As of 2005, there were 1,821 state and federal correctional facilities, and 3,283 jails in 2009. Sixty nine of those prisons and thirty four of those jails were built in the 1800’s. 307 prisons and 153 jails were built before the end of WWII and were still in operation by 2005 and 2006, respectively.

There are approximately 2.2 million people incarcerated in American jails and prisons today, which are staffed by around 500,000 correctional employees. Decades of mass incarceration have packed many prisons and jails beyond their capacity, leaving them overcrowded. Confining inmates and staff in such close quarters only increases the heat and humidity because the human body is a source of both. Corrections officers in Texas have reportedly passed out from heat exposure in the state’s un-air conditioned facilities.

Many of the main risk factors for heat-related illnesses are highly prevalent in the prisoner population, which is rapidly aging and disproportionately unhealthy. Mentally ill inmates on certain medications and those with chronic health issues like heart disease, asthma or diabetes are at heightened risk of suffering from heat-related illness. The same goes for inmates with substance abuse issues who may be on medications that make the patient sensitive to extreme temperatures. Like inmates, many officers also take medications that may make them sensitive to the heat.

The study also noted that “A sedentary lifestyle, almost a defining characteristic of life in correctional facilities, can also increase the risk” of heat-related illness. The stress of prolonged exposure to extreme heat may also increase the potential for violence and unrest, which puts both inmates and staff at risk.

From a legal standpoint, another challenge of implementing and overseeing a climate change adaptation policy arises in that jails and prisons span jurisdiction from Native American reservations and counties all the way to the federal level. The study noted that there were 2,859 distinct jail jurisdictions as of 2006.

This could also end up being very costly to taxpayers as it opens governments up to potential litigation by victims or the Department of Justice. Inmates can launch constitutional claims that their conditions of confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and corrections staff could pursue legal recourse for the occupational hazard of working in extreme heat. Both inmates and staff with disabilities could seek protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. All such financial settlements would ultimately be paid in taxpayer dollars.

The study stresses that climate change adaptation will be a process, not an isolated event. Among the recommendations it makes is to reduce the size of the incarcerated population, implement climate control policies for facilities, phase-out obselete and vulnerable facilities, retrofit adaptable facilities for ‘maximizing passive cooling,’ and require private contractors to maintain an adequately comfortable temperature in their facilities. It also recommends that the construction of any future facilities take climate change and rising temperatures into serious consideration.

Under a 2009 Executive Order by President Barack Obama, the Bureau of Prisons is supposed to conduct “climate change adaptation planning,” but there is no parallel requirement for similar action in other jurisdictions.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.