The fight to stop climate change cannot exclude prisons’ greenhouse gas emissions. Alongside the incredibly dire socioeconomic consequences mass incarceration causes, prisons harm their internal populations via air pollution, sewage production, chemical toxins, hazardous materials, etc., and disproportionately impact the health of their neighboring communities. In addition to this, because of environmental injustices, responsible parties are often at a much higher risk of enduring numerous health issues (i.e., cancer, respiratory illness, mental disorders, etc.), upon being released.
Overall, white supremacy, colonization, and the patriarchy are rooted in climate change. In tandem with their unhealthy living conditions, prisons are notoriously built close to, or directly on top, of toxic wastelands. Although studies link these neighboring areas as perilous to live in, there are still marginalized communities who do not have the luxury of living elsewhere – thus increasing BIPOC’s exposure to environmental degradation.
If these Superfund sites are too dangerous to go to school, work and/or live near, and “deemed fit only for dumping toxic materials,” how can actual people residing there be justified, sometimes for decades at a time? Well, as research analyst Leah Wang flags in discussing New York City’s Rikers jail complex being built on a landfill, “It’s clear that those who set out to build these prisons care no more about the people inside than they do about garbage.”
That said, the prison-industrial complex undoubtedly lacks any sense of urgency to protect their prison populations, or at least prevent them from enduring the destructive aftermath of climate-related catastrophes. To expose just how unprepared state officials are when environmental disasters strike, once hurricane Ida hit Louisiana in 2021, incarcerated folks were trapped inside flooded buildings, cut off from all sorts of communication, and left behind during evacuation orders.
On a similar note, as temperatures rise across the U.S. because of global warming, "prisons have been slow or downright unwilling to respond to increasingly unbearable conditions.” This, in turn, harms individuals taking certain medications, or people living with high blood pressure, diabetes, and the like – who typically account for a substantial portion of incarcerated folks to begin with. And, since elderly folks make up five times more of the prison population now than they did 30 years ago, prisons’ health risks should be even more of a concern – especially as their access to healthcare is extremely limited or nonexistent.
Too often, BIPOC are seen as “expendable” units across the board, and this notion directly applies to the imprisonment systems’ lack of transparency. When it comes to these unsafe environments, due to the intrinsic effects of environmental racism, people of color are routinely at the forefront of those most harmed; for Black and Brown folks in particular, statistics continuously report that they are far more likely to be arrested in comparison to their White counterparts.
Being held accountable for one's wrongdoings should not equate to living in inhabitable conditions, where poor water and air quality is considered the norm. How can a person properly learn to address, acknowledge, and attempt to repair the harm they have caused, if they are still being harmed themselves?
Therefore, instead of investing billions of dollars into unhealthy environments that provoke isolation and shame, finances would be better spent on restorative justice practices that aid responsible and harmed parties toward a path of healing. To dissolve cycles of violence, environmental advocacy cannot exclude the impacts of mass incarceration – our ecosystem deserves better.