Global warming meets the prison industrial complex: Inmates dying from heat is a social justice issue
When people are sentenced to prison time and begin (or return to) incarcerated life, people on the outside often believe incarceration will punish inmates’ misdeeds, teach them cause-and-effect and protect society-at-large. But, what happens to people facing global warming and prisons without air conditioning?
According to a report from the Marshall Project, people who are incarcerated face startling heat-related deaths. Many serve their sentences in prisons where temperatures exceed 100 degrees, and sympathy for their conditions is hard to find. The Marshall Project released an investigative report called “Cooking Them to Death: The Lethal Toll of Hot Prisons.” The article spells out one family’s experience with their loved one named Robert Allen Webb (“Allen”), who was imprisoned in extreme heat conditions and who also suffered cognitive impairment.
While the story centered in the Marshall Project reflects a white family’s experience with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, people of color, especially Black folks, represent substantial inmate populations throughout America. History shows us that when white people in vulnerable communities experience tragedy, Black and Brown people are susceptible to tragedy with added factors. Recently, South Florida demonstrated its lack of care for imprisoned populations who faced climate change related harms when Hurricane Irma was expected to directly hit the region and many inmates were not evacuated.
The Webb family said Allen was gaunt and pale when they visited him at the correctional facility. He downed a soda before guzzling a few more. Allen told his family the literal heat in prison could kill him. He requested that they allow the prison to bury him, rather than expending more family resources to put him to rest if he were to die in prison.
“I’m sorry to inform you that your brother has passed away,” the prison chaplain said a few months after the family visited. The chaplain added that when Allen’s body was discovered, it was hot. This family’s experience tied into stories of other inmates whose deaths connect with sustained heat and confinement in spaces without sufficient ventilation.
Even people who lean toward law enforcement believe inmates should not face this level of heat and societal apathy. “I don’t have love for these people,” Lance Lowry, head of the Texas correctional officer union, told the Project. He offered a caveat: “The incarceration is their punishment, not cooking them to death.”