Climate Change and Mass Incarceration

A New Report from Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law Explores How Rising Temperatures May Impact America’s Prisons and Prisoners

New York, August 31, 2015—Rising temperatures from global warming will strain the already overburdened U.S. correctional system and imperil the health of inmates and penal employees alike, according to a new report from Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The report, Heat in U.S. Prisons and Jails: Corrections and the Challenge of Climate Change, from Daniel Holt,  a scholar and attorney who represented indigent state prisoners as senior staff attorney with the Office of the Appellate Defender in New York City, addresses three critical and oft-neglected questions: How will increased temperatures and heat waves caused by climate change affect correctional inmates, staff, and facilities? What can be done to minimize the dangers of extreme heat? And what are the legal implications of excessive heat in prisons and jails?
Some 2.2 million inmates are currently incarcerated in approximately 1800 facilities across the U.S., overseen by nearly half a million correctional employees. Extreme heat, the most common cause of weather-related death in the U.S., is becoming an increasingly dangerous problem during summer months in facilities that often lack air conditioning and proper ventilation, especially in southern states like Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. As inmate populations suffer disproportionately from health problems that make them more vulnerable to heat, related illnesses have claimed the lives of numerous inmates in recent years. Higher temperatures and other impacts of climate change will increase such risks in addition to stressing the correctional sector’s physical plant.
“Just as correctional administrators should begin educating themselves about climate change and how it will affect their departments, so should policymakers, academics, and others who are already working on adaptation widen their compass to include corrections,” said Michael B. Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice and director of the Sabin Center. “The success or failure of adaptation efforts will be measured in human lives as well as public dollars. This issue also has a constitutional dimension, because courts have ruled excessive heat in prisons to be cruel and unusual punishment."
The report provides the first systematic analysis of the correctional sector’s structural and legal vulnerabilities to high temperatures caused by climate change, and offers recommendations for adaptation including retrofitting facilities, reducing the incarcerated population, and encouraging cooperation and collaboration among the United States’ variegated correctional institutions.