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Climate & Punishment: How Incarcerated People Face Increasing Threat of Fires, Floods & Extreme Heat

StoryFebruary 14, 2022
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Image Credit: The Intercept: “Climate and Punishment”

A damning new investigation by The Intercept details the climate risks facing incarcerated people in more than 6,500 detention facilities across the country, including wildfires, floods and extreme heat. We feature a 10-minute video report that includes the stories of people behind bars and their families who are fighting for justice, and speak with reporter Alleen Brown, who says the climate crisis, coupled with the deterioration of detention facilities, places the U.S. mass incarceration system at a “crossroads” between being reinvested in or defunded. The report also includes a new database, which Brown hopes “can be a tool for organizers, policymakers, reporters and family members of people who are trapped inside these facilities.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show looking at “Climate and Punishment,” a new investigation by The Intercept examining how the climate emergency is impacting incarcerated people around the United States. In a moment, we’ll be joined by The Intercept's Alleen Brown, but first let's turn to a new video by The Intercept that she narrates about the issue.

ALLEEN BROWN: In the past decade, dangerous weather events have become more frequent and more extreme due to the climate crisis. Both the public and elected officials are only beginning to take the situation seriously. And there’s one population in the U.S. facing some of the worst climate threats, who almost nobody is talking about: incarcerated people.

JUSTIN PHILLIPS: At that time that I was in the heat, it was a horrible experience. For one year, I sat there just dying.

JAMILIA LAND: What pains me the most is, like, his life could be taken by a fire that he can’t escape from.

ALLEEN BROWN: The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and prisoners are some of the most vulnerable to the climate crisis, given that they’re at the mercy of a prison system plagued with problems. To find out the scale of the impact, The Intercept mapped more than 6,000 jails, prisons and detention centers, identifying thousands of facilities where incarcerated people face severe risk from climate change. Our data shows that California, Texas and Florida have the largest prison and jail populations and are also facing some of the worst dangers from fires, floods and extreme heat. In the 1980s, the war on drugs spurred a prison boom as scores of new facilities were built in rural areas across the U.S.

REPORTER: Wildfires are scorching the West Coast.

ALLEEN BROWN: We found that California has the most facilities in the highest-risk category for wildfires.

JAMILIA LAND: This is one of the first pictures after he was incarcerated.

ALLEEN BROWN: Jamilia Land’s husband Sam and adopted son Elijah are both incarcerated in two different facilities with high wildfire risk.

JAMILIA LAND: I first became aware of the severity of what was happening around September. Both my husband and my son knew that the fires were encroaching.

REPORTER: You can just see how much smoke this fire is putting up here.

JAMILIA LAND: Elijah said he could see smoke rolling over the side of the hills.

PHONE RECORDING: Thank you for using Global Tel Link.

JAMILIA LAND: Hey, baby.

He also told me that there was a massive COVID outbreak. And Elijah is asthmatic.

ELIJAH LAND: We’ve got smoke in the air. Everybody’s coughing. I was in the gym, packed in with other sick individuals. I was feeling so horrible, especially with the fact that there’s a possibility I could die. So it was like one of the worst times of my life.

JAMILIA LAND: It’s going to be OK, baby. It’s going to be OK.

ELIJAH LAND: Love you, Mom.

JAMILIA LAND: I love you, too, baby.

And so, as I started researching, I realized I haven’t heard anything about an evacuation policy. And I became very alarmed. I asked him to go and talk to a correctional officer to verify if there was in fact a plan in place for the inmate population. And he was like, “Mom, I had one of them laugh in my face and tell me, 'What do you mean? Like, we leave and go home. Y'all stay here. Whatever happens happens.’”

ALLEEN BROWN: Although he didn’t pull the trigger, Elijah was convicted under California’s felony murder law for a 2016 robbery that resulted in the deaths of three people. The controversial rule was revised only months later.

JAMILIA LAND: It’s one thing having to sit and worry about a fire, but it’s another thing to know that this kid should not be sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

We know that California has been a hotbed for wildfires for years. Governor Gavin Newsom has, in fact, implemented some legislative changes; however, it’s just not enough.

Now his mind has to worry: “Am I even going to live long enough to see the end of this fight?” We call ourselves a civilized society. Where is the “civilized” in that?

ALLEEN BROWN: Without transparency about the details of emergency plans, incarcerated people and their loved ones simply aren’t convinced that the state will protect them when the flames draw too close to the prison walls. As the climate crisis worsens, another major threat to prisoners is heat, especially in southern states like Texas, the state with the largest jail and prison population. Among Texas’s 180,000 prisoners was Justin Philips, who was recently released after nearly five years in prison, including a stint at the Coffield Unit, which had no air conditioning.

CASEY PHILLIPS: Look, y’all, there’s Justin Phillips. He’s in the car!

JUSTIN PHILLIPS: I was incarcerated at units with no air conditioner, and the temperatures were getting to a 130-degree margin. There’s nothing you can do. It’s like being locked in a hot car. You can’t go anywhere. You’re in a little 8-by-10 cell. There were so many people committing suicide. And drugs were running rampant because people wanted an escape. And if you’re not strong-minded, you’re not going to make it. It was a horrible experience, especially me being sick.

ALLEEN BROWN: In 2016, Justin was diagnosed with a rare kidney condition. He needs a range of medications and multiple dialysis treatments every week to survive.

JUSTIN PHILLIPS: At that time that I was in the heat, veins in my kidneys failed. I gained a lot of fluid. The guards, they’re supposed to pass out water every couple hours. If you get too hot, they’re supposed to take you to a cool shower and all. That’s a myth. I’ve never seen it happen. Sometimes they would take me down there, my blood pressure might be 200 over 160, and they’d just send me right back to my cell. And high blood pressure will kill your kidneys. My kidney function dropped dramatically. I just accepted the fact that I was going to die.

CASEY PHILLIPS: This is when I was fighting to get him moved to an air-conditioned unit. You have to have documentation, or it’s your word against theirs. I knew if it wasn’t for me fighting for him, he wouldn’t make it out alive. And I started a group. I am the founder of Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Advocates.

We fight for what’s right.

Then I saw how big the problem really was. This is a letter that I had wrote to Greg Abbott. The politicians know what’s going on. But, honestly, it’s Greg Abbott that doesn’t care. You’re like knocking on a brick wall, because nobody’s wanting to reply, no one’s wanting to respond. But, finally, they did. We had a bill for humane conditions in two different sessions. We made it further every year.

ALLEEN BROWN: From there, things have stalled. Governor Greg Abbott and Republican lawmakers killed the advocates’ latest bill and continue to stand in the way of climate protection for the state prison system, where, as of 2020, less than a third of all facilities were fully air conditioned.

And the problem goes well beyond Texas. Nearly every facility in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Oklahoma suffers from blistering heat, yet none of those states’ corrections departments require universal air conditioning. Red or blue, governors and lawmakers around the country are failing the people placed under their watch. The Biden administration has tools to help reduce the impact of climate change on incarcerated people through federal oversight but has chosen not to intervene.

At this rate, prison conditions are set to get worse as the climate crisis intensifies, leading some experts to suggest that the only meaningful mitigation strategy is to shut these facilities down. For Justin and Casey, the effects of the heat at the Coffield Unit were already enough to be life-changing.

CASEY PHILLIPS: I firmly believe that if he wouldn’t have been in that atmosphere, he wouldn’t be in the condition that he’s in now.

JUSTIN PHILLIPS: I got a 40% chance to live five years. And hopefully I’ll be getting on a transplant list, but nothing has happened so far. I feel like they gave me a possible death sentence.

JAMILIA LAND: He’s got everything that he could possibly need.

ALLEEN BROWN: Jamilia Land is still fighting for Elijah’s release, but her family recently found some relief from the climate risks they face.

JAMILIA LAND: We are anxiously awaiting the release of my husband. I’m nervous. My adrenaline is running. I’m hungry. I’m sleep-deprived. But, finally, he’s on his way. There’s a van. There’s a van. There’s a van. There’s a van. There’s a van! There’s a van! He’s coming. He’s coming. You excited, Vena? [screaming] Come on, baby! Come on, baby! [screaming]

I love you, baby.

SAM BROWN: I love you, too, sweetheart.

It feels good, like a new beginning. I’m also ready to work, because there’s so much that needs to change with this system. And this is going to be an atom bomb of hope for Elijah, because now we both are going to be fighting side by side to bring him home.

AMY GOODMAN: A new video produced by The Intercept as part of an investigative project titled “Climate and Punishment,” written by Alleen Brown, who joins us now.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Alleen. An amazing report, and you’ve done so much more, this series of investigative print pieces, as well, for The Intercept. Talk about what most surprised you in this reporting, as you deal with extreme heat, as you deal with flooding and as you deal with fires.

ALLEEN BROWN: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things that surprised me the most was — you know, of course, we found that thousands of facilities are facing really serious risks right now, and people are experiencing horrific impacts today, and this is going to get much worse. But I think one of the things that surprised me was that it’s not just the climate crisis that we’re looking at; it’s this crisis of mass incarceration.

You know, as I mentioned in the film, a lot of these facilities were built in the '80s and ’90s and are deteriorating. To some degree, it seems that environmental crisis is sort of inherent to this system. And so, I think these facilities, our mass incarceration system is at something of a crossroads, where, you know, you could say, “OK, the climate crisis is going to make things so much worse, so we need to invest billions of dollars into the mass incarceration system,” or you could consider that maybe this isn't the question we should be asking. You know, like the climate crisis, the mass incarceration system takes vulnerable people and puts them in even more vulnerable situations. So, you know, a lot of people are arguing that to meaningfully address the climate crisis that these facilities are facing, we need to be letting people out and shutting facilities down.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you have the story of Elijah and his father in prison. At the end, we see his father released. And now they’ll fight for Elijah’s release. But Elijah has asthma, and he sees the fire coming over the hill. Everyone is coughing. And he asks a corrections guard what’s the plan for evacuation. You’ve said California says evacuation procedures are top secret, because they would compromise the security of the prisoners. What about this? And what, in fact, needs to happen?

ALLEEN BROWN: Yeah, I mean, this is something we heard from family members of incarcerated people and people who are currently and formerly incarcerated, over and over again, this idea — you know, the sense that maybe there isn’t really an evacuation plan or an emergency plan, and maybe the things that are in place to save people’s lives are not really sufficient.

You know, the corrections departments in all the states we talked to, of course, say, “Of course we have a plan. It’s secret. We can’t tell you. You know, these are — the people themselves are security risks, so, you know, how could we share the plans?” But I think for a lot of people, especially who have recently survived the COVID crisis in prisons and have spent time seeing how healthcare systems in prisons — you know, nothing really works there. So, for them to trust that these secret plans are going to be effective is something that is beyond possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you — you write that, according to the data reviewed by The Intercept, by the end of the century, thousands of prisons across the United States, from New Jersey to Minnesota, will experience the kind of heat Texas sees today, and nobody seems to be ready. And then you talk about the flooding threats. This is not just coastal prisons.

ALLEEN BROWN: Yep, that’s right. So, you know, a lot of the prisons that we — prisons, jails and detention centers that we identified with significant flooding risk are in places like West Virginia and Ohio and Tennessee. So, we like to imagine that this is just about hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, but it’s certainly not. And again, you know, back to this issue of deteriorating facilities, we also found a lot of facilities that had appeared to have low flood risk actually having a history of flooding. And, you know, it’s like it doesn’t matter if you’re in a flood zone or not, if the roof is broken and the windows don’t close or the sewage system is falling apart. So, you know, I think that we should be looking even beyond the facilities that we’ve identified as high risk, when we think about what the climate crisis will mean for people who are incarcerated.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up, talk about the “Climate and Punishment” database that you’ve developed. And finally, as you point out, this isn’t about fixing all of these problems. It’s fixing the major problem, overarching issue of mass incarceration in this country, and who gets imprisoned in these, in some cases, ice boxes and, in other cases, boxes that bake human beings.

ALLEEN BROWN: Yeah. So, I mean, this database is something that we’re really proud of and we really hope can be a tool for organizers, policymakers, reporters and family members of people who are trapped inside these facilities. My colleague Akil Harris and I spent about a year basically mapping this database of 6,500 — more than 6,500 facilities against separate databases of flood risk, wildfire risk and heat risk. And we were able to put them all on this interactive map, where you can search most facilities or search individual communities and come up with kind of mini profiles of the facilities with the risk levels that they appear to be facing.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we’re going to link to that “Climate and Punishment” data map at Alleen Brown, we thank you so much for being with us, of The Intercept, a part of this investigative project. Absolutely remarkable.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask. Wearing a mask is an act of love.

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