The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. (1) In fact, the population of the United States accounts for less than 5% of the global population but holds 20% of the world's prisoners. (2) As of 2020, more than 2.3 million people were incarcerated in the United States and of that number, more than 555,000 people have not been convicted of any crime. (3) While serving time in U.S. carceral facilities comes with a host of inherent risks and challenges, new research reveals that the threat of anthropogenic climate change presents an additional set of hazards.
Recent reports from legal advocates, journalists, and scholars underscore previously unexamined relationships between climate change and the U.S. carceral system. This Essay explores a number of these intersections. The next Part considers the body of research on environmental justice, climate justice, and their relationship to carceral institutions, followed by a consideration of the ways in which climate impacts harm incarcerated persons directly. The Essay specifically examines how climate change-influenced weather events produce flooding and extreme temperatures in jails and prisons, placing the health and wellbeing of prisoners at great risk. The health-impairing effects of fossil fuel extraction are considered, followed by a focus on the brutal conditions incarcerated firefighters and natural disaster workers face while confronting year-round wildfire season as well as in the aftermath of climate-linked industrial accidents and weather events. This Essay centers the experiences, voices, and resistance efforts by incarcerated persons and their allies across these cases with careful consideration of how legal remedies are both deployed and foreclosed. Finally, this Essay also explores the limitations and challenges that prisoners face with respect to seeking litigation and offers recommendations for how prisoners can achieve improvements in their conditions of confinement with an eye toward building support for environmental and climate justice. Climate change's deleterious impacts on incarcerated populations reveal productive points of intersection between movements for environmental justice, climate justice, and prisoner rights.
I. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, CLIMATE JUSTICE, AND CARCERAL INSTITUTIONS
Since the early 1970s, scholars have demonstrated that communities of color, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and low wealth or income populations are disproportionately impacted by a spectrum of environmental risks and threats. (4) These hazards include air pollution associated with power plants and highways, garbage and hazardous waste dumps, oil pipelines, and other locally unwanted land uses that are more likely to be concentrated in these communities. (5) The recognition of these uneven risks gave rise to the multidisciplinary field of...