Incarcerated People Face a Higher Risk from Hurricanes

Climate change's first impact will be felt by those incarcerated

Three months into hurricane season, anxiety is running high in New Orleans and other at-risk cities. Witnessing the wrath of Hurricane Ian, residents know all too well that their city is not yet out of the woods. There are, however, small signs of relief and progress amid this climate-fueled apprehension — namely, the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

But despite being celebrated as a turning point by climate scientists across the globe, the IRA does nothing to explicitly protect the thousands of people incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison and other prisons in high-risk hurricane areas who are already suffering climate change’s worst impacts.

As public defense experts working on public safety and access to justice in New Orleans, we have seen firsthand how people in prisons like Orleans Parish Prison are particularly susceptible to the extreme weather, poor health outcomes and displacement caused by climate change.

This plays out in dramatic ways, such as when leaders at Orleans Parish Prison abandoned hundreds of people behind bars without food or water during Hurricane Katrina. Many of these folks were incarcerated for minor traffic infractions or had yet to be formally charged (though no charge warrants being left to die in a storm). But we also see it in routine disruptions, too. When phone lines go down during severe weather, people in prison often have no other way to contact family, friends or legal counsel.

Worse still, some states have not only denied incarcerated people a path to safety; they have actively sent them into the line of fire. In California, for example, incarcerated people make up nearly one third of the state’s wildfire firefighting force, with a pay rate of just a few dollars a day. While meaningful work opportunities can be a crucial part of surviving incarceration, the lack of fair wages for highly dangerous, skilled work reminds us that the 13th Amendment did not necessarily eradicate slavery but simply relegated it to American prisons.

Furthermore, the 6,000 prisons, jails, correctional facilities and immigration detention centers across the country emit disproportionately high amounts of carbon per capita. The production of goods and materials for use in these facilities, as well as economic growth driven by cheap prison labor, only compound these negative impacts. These emissions, in turn, fuel the very natural disasters that harm low-lying cities like New Orleans most.

The most efficient way to address this deleterious cycle between mass incarceration and climate change is for the U.S. government to round out its recent wave of climate action by implementing sweeping decarceration policy down to the local level  starting with prisons like Orleans Parish Prison that are situated in the path of climate danger.

Our leaders must identify those who are behind bars due to poverty, mental health challenges, substance use issues and all other offenses caused by unmet societal needs rather than a pure propensity for violent activity. Estimates show that this would account for over 70 percent of currently incarcerated people.

We know how to make things better. For most people, access to housing, income, and meaningful substance use or mental health care dramatically drops the likelihood of future involvement in harm. Most people, in short, could be safely released if given the right support when coming home.

The government can also decarcerate by investing in public defense. Public defenders’ intimate, confidential knowledge of their clients’ cases and upstream position in the criminal legal system empower them to identify individuals who would benefit from alternatives to incarceration, including treatment courts, diversion to social services and access to mental health care. Because ensuring people aren’t needlessly trapped behind bars — especially during a climate disaster —  not only keeps them safe, but promotes public safety at large.

This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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