In This Episode
This week, Mary and Amy are joined by investigative journalist Alleen Brown to take a closer look at mass incarceration. If we’re going to talk about the communities most vulnerable to climate change, we have to talk about mass incarceration. From prison labor to prison evacuation, from ICE detention centers to juvenile justice centers, nothing good comes from the convergence of the climate crisis and the mass incarceration crisis.
Listen to our episode on prison abolition with Drew Costley, here.
Amy Westervelt: Hey, hot cakes. Welcome to Hot Take. I’m Amy Westervelt.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: And I’m Mary Annaïse Heglar. Oh, my God. I’m so glad you’re back. I don’t have to say hot cakes anymore.
Amy Westervelt: I’m actually surprised you didn’t force your guest co-host to do it.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: I didn’t. I didn’t. I got through it. I didn’t laugh. I made it. I channeled my inner Amy and just brave my way through. Anyway, how are you? How was Costa Rica?
Amy Westervelt: I’m good. Costa Rica is great. And yeah, I feel like I’ve just kind of jumped right in here. It’s awesome. It’s good. Yeah. Seeing a lot of cool animals every day. Which is fun.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Have you seen any sloths?
Amy Westervelt: I have seen sloths. I have seen monkeys. I also had to get rid of a scorpion that was camped out in the corner of my room. So.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Okay. Less cute. Less cute. Have you seen any bats?
Amy Westervelt: Yes. Seen some bats.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: You have?
Amy Westervelt: Seen some very cute bats. Yeah, actually, honestly, I have to say, like, people talk about how this is like the most biodiverse country in the world and all that stuff and like, it just, I don’t know, like, I honestly was like, I don’t really know what that means. And then I came here. And I mean, I know what it means, like on paper, but I came here and I feel like every day I’m seeing different, like a gazillion different butterflies and, you know, random insects I’ve never seen and cool birds and. Yeah, it’s it’s cool. I like it.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: That is so awesome. Yeah. How how are people in Costa Rica taking the news that Joe Manchin has covid?
Amy Westervelt: You know, one really great thing about being here is that nobody is keeping track of U.S. politics.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: No, not one person.
Amy Westervelt: I don’t know anyone. Like no one has even mentioned it to me. But but it’s fun for me to, you know, to keep tabs from afar. I know. It makes me happy to learn that Joe Manchin has covid. I hope it triggers his black lung. No, I’m just kidding.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Ooooh.
Amy Westervelt: Just kidding. Joe Manchin.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Leave that in. Leave that in. I mean, I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens. It’s like I don’t know. I know. I don’t know what is going to happen with that guy.
Amy Westervelt: I know. He’s the worst.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: He always comes back. He always comes back. Yeah, well, you came back for the perfect week because this week we’re going to talk about prisons.
Amy Westervelt: Yes.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: That was not the right tone.
Amy Westervelt: That’s ugh.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Wrong tone for that.
Amy Westervelt: Wrong tone, wrong tone. But I do enjoy having these conversations because they’re super interesting and there’s still a ton of people who are like, what is climate have to do with prison abolition? So I feel like, you know, we cannot have this conversation enough. Long time hot cakes will remember that we did an episode on prison abolition back in 2021 with Drew closely, but there’s always a lot more to talk about, even if that episode was like 2 hours long.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. Remains one of my favorite conversations on here. And since then, Alleen Brown has published an amazing body of work over The Intercept about the intersections between climate change and prisons. And I’m really excited that we get to talk to her today.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, me too. Yes. Alleen has since left The Intercept, but she’s still an amazing journalist. She’s still working on this subject, and she has a deep wealth of knowledge about all of it. So we’re really we’re really excited. She was able to make it.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: So let’s get her on here. I think it’s time.
Amy Westervelt: It’s time to talk about climate. Welcome. Alleen Brown to Hot Take. Thanks for being here.
Alleen Brown: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.
Amy Westervelt: One of the things that I was just blown away by in your work was this massive climate and punishment project that you did when you were at The Intercept where you guys tracked hundreds of prisons and what kind of climate risks people were at when they were incarcerated in them. Could you tell us a little bit about just kind of how that project came about? Because I feel like when it came out, there still was and there probably still is today. There still was kind of a lack of understanding about how these two things were were connected. So, yeah, maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you came to that connection.
Alleen Brown: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, as an environmental justice reporter, I feel like I’m always looking for how the climate crisis is impacting the most vulnerable people. And I think criminalized populations definitely fit into that category. So, you know, I was looking at, you know, covering the intersection between the climate crisis in prisons and I think maybe did one or two stories like one off stories about climate impacts in prisons. And I saw other people doing the same here and there, but there didn’t seem to be any really comprehensive look about how the climate crisis was going to be impacting the system of mass incarceration. So I got with my wonderful colleague, Kiel Harris, who is a data reporter and really just excellent journalist and human. And we started thinking about how we might map the climate crisis against mass incarceration. So basically we took this database of 6500, more than 6500 jails, prisons, ICE detention centers, juvenile detention centers, and mapped them. We were able to map them against indicators of heat risk, wildfire risk and flood risk and just came out with this really disturbing picture of how much risk these facilities are already facing and how it’s about to get a lot worse.
Amy Westervelt: Was there anything that really jumped out at you as like like, oh, wow, I wasn’t expecting that. Or like, yeah, I don’t know. I’m I’m curious also to hear if any facility was actually starting to look at this in any kind of a real way in terms of preparing to.
Alleen Brown: Mm. Yeah, definitely. I mean I would say the scope of the issue or the scope of the impact already was disturbing to me. You know, we found that more than a third of detention facilities in the U.S. are in areas that historically have had more than 50 days a year annually with heat index above 90 degrees. So that’s enough to make people dealing with a lot of health issues sick. You know, by the end of the century, that proportion is likely to go up to like three quarters of facilities, detention facilities across the U.S.. So that was really disturbing. I mean, right now, no carceral institutions are located in a county with more than 50 days annually at 105 degrees, which is just dangerous by 2100, almost 700 facilities are likely to be at that level, you know, mostly in Texas, Florida and Louisiana. But a lot of things surprised me about the reporting. You know, one thing that, you know, with the heat, we were really looking at these prolonged periods of high heat. But I spoke to this researcher, Julie Scarpa, who was looking at how heat impacts mortality rates. And she actually found that a heat index above 90 degrees in a prison in the Northeast can increase mortality by as much as 18%, which is a lot more than in the South, where people might be more acclimated to that level of heat. I mean, you know, that’s not to mention those jumps to 105 degrees, which is going to be dangerous for anyone. But I thought that was really striking.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: One of the things that really surprised me in looking at the project was that when you mapped the facilities with the greatest flood risk, none of them were in Louisiana and that Florida has more facilities at risk from fire than California. Can you talk a little bit about how that comes about?
Alleen Brown: Yes, those details were totally stunning to me. Yeah. I mean, so with floods, a lot of it comes down to these just incredibly widespread infrastructure problems that have nothing to do with like flood risk per say or you know, they do have everything to do with that, but not like flood risk. Like when we’re thinking of a FEMA flood map, for example, we found, you know, at. As you’re saying, we found that a lot of facilities that have a history of flooding did not actually have really high flood risk. And the thing is, if a facility is high up on a hill, but the roof is falling apart and the sewage is a mess, when a big storm comes through, it’s not going to go well, you know? So a lot of the facilities that have had some of the worst flooding problems, they might even be no flood risk or like moderate flood risk. And where it comes to wildfires. Yeah, I mean, one of the highest risk facilities is this Everglades Correctional Institution in Florida. You know, it may be located next to a swamp, but that foliage just really lights up when it gets hot and sparks fly. So wildfire risk, according to the researchers I was speaking to, is really. Wildfires really create major problems mostly in the West right now. But that risk is present across the U.S. You know, Texas and Florida, like you’re saying, have a lot of facilities facing a lot of wildfire risk that might, you know, come to fruition in flames in the next in the decades to come, I guess, or next year. You know, we don’t know.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. It makes me think of that Tennessee wildfire from was it late last year? Yeah. These things are happening in places that we’re not used to them happening.
Alleen Brown: Right.
Amy Westervelt: Right. I think I think also, too, I mean, one of the things that we’ve talked about a few times before is just all the studies. And I feel like there’s more coming out all the time that connect extreme heat with increased violence in general. So both, you know, domestic violence and violent crime, but also police brutality and like sort of aggressive police behavior towards people. And yeah, I wonder if that’s something that has cropped up at all in your reporting to early in. Like if it’s when I was reading your project, I just kept thinking of like, jeez, there’s more people being incarcerated. Like the incarceration rates are being impacted by climate in some ways too. And then once people are there, there’s all this additional risk that they’re kind of trapped in. It’s this really, I don’t know, depressing, not of things that collide. Anyway, I’m curious if you’ve if you’ve done any reporting on on that connection as well.
Alleen Brown: I think that that is a really important connection. I haven’t personally done a ton of reporting on the way arrest rates go up, but when it gets really hot. But I’m quite sure that that is the case. You know, a lot of people right now in New York, for example, it’s really hot. And if you don’t have air conditioning, you’re going to be hanging out outside. You know, law enforcement sees a lot of black and brown people hanging out outside and arrest rates go up. So those people end up in facilities that are not air conditioned. You know, if we’re talking about New York, again, Rikers folks were reporting that air conditioning was out in at least one of the facilities over the past week or two, you know. So yeah, the heat sort of helps funnel people into this system where the heat makes it just all the more, I guess, cruel and unusual, you know. And I would also say that a similar thing plays out if you’re thinking about migration, you know, so a big hurricane hits Central America and a country doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the with the damage. And a lot of people end up crossing the US-Mexico border where they are criminalized and end up in ultimately may end up in ICE detention centers that also are unprepared for the climate crisis.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mm hmm. Yeah. What you were saying a minute ago about the heat also make me think about he can increase the amount of violence within the prison, both from the correctional officers and in between the prisoners. And I often wonder about like people who go into jail, like not convicted of anything, a lot of them, maybe they’re for no reason but wind up in fights or other like sort of skirmishes in prison that make them wind up staying there longer. Or people who get into fights or, you know, are the victims of violence and then get put into solitary confinement in a heat wave. I don’t know. I’m not expecting an answer there, but that’s like just something keeps me up at night.
Amy Westervelt: It’s it’s yeah. It seems like one of those situations where there’s like a lot of compounding things, right? Like a lot of dominoes falling. And, and this is just one more factor that can exacerbate that. And then you’ve got people who are, you know, not convicted of anything. They’re just being held because they can’t make bail. Right?
Alleen Brown: Right.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Right.
Alleen Brown: Another example that’s kind of like that is, you know, the way the system of mass incarceration ends up being a stand in for like minimal mental health support in communities. So, you know, psychotropic medications, which are used to treat a lot of mental health issues, a lot of them make you more sensitive to heat. So, you know, it’s like you’re saying it’s a lot of issues compounding.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, that’s so interesting. Another thing I want to just mention, too, before we we move on to other stuff is that there are a lot of connections between fossil fuel companies and police forces in the form of funding, particularly in oil heavy states. So I know I’ve reported on this in Richmond, California. Chevron helped the Richmond police force have like, I don’t know, 50% larger police force than other towns in the area. I know that oil companies are, you know, quite supportive of police in Louisiana and in Texas. And I wonder if this is something that that you’ve seen to element like this, this connection between that industry in particular and incarceration?
Alleen Brown: Yeah. I mean, I guess I would say that the area where my reporting has focused on that is around the criminalization of land defenders. So, you know, I did a bunch of reporting in Minnesota on the construction of Enbridge’s line three pipeline with local Anishinaabe people really kind of rose up against. And in that case, the public utility ward set up this account so that Enbridge, the pipeline company, would directly fund policing related to the pipeline.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mm hmm.
Amy Westervelt: And they’re a Canadian company just to make sure people understand what’s going on there. This is an escrow account that a Canadian company set up and put money in that was then used to hire police who then arrested American citizens for protesting.
Alleen Brown: Right.
Amy Westervelt: That whole thing was insane.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. And I mean, off duty law enforcement officers are also routinely used by fossil fuel companies. Security companies. Yeah. You know, there’s other instances, you know, like what your your reporting in Richmond is a great example. And also in Oregon with the Jordan Cove, the planned Jordan Cove LNG export facility. Again, you know, they they set up this LNG funded police unit that was involved with monitoring opposition to this project that wasn’t even ultimately constructed. So there is a long history of this stuff, right.
Amy Westervelt: And and I think related to that, it’s good to to just know that there is a big push right now to make the criminal fines and sentences harsher for people who are are caught protesting around, quote unquote, critical infrastructure, which includes, you know, pipelines, power, power lines. I mean, honestly, in some cases, it includes roads and and like railroads, too. So you could you can see how this could start to really just become an an all out criminalization of protest across the board.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Are they specific about what near infrastructure means? Like, is it subjective?
Amy Westervelt: It depends on the state.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Okay.
Amy Westervelt: Some of them are explicit and some of them are pretty vague. And then the punishments also depend like in some in some states, it can extend to organizations that have helped. To plan protests. So like that happened in Standing Rock cases with Greenpeace. It also happened, I think, when one of the Greenpeace protesters did a like a blockade in Texas, too. So there’s some states where, yeah, the organization can be part of it. But one state recently passed a critical infrastructure bill that made it okay to use RICO against protesters. So basically this these are laws that were created to deal with organized crime. And they’re now saying, yeah, you can use that against protest groups. Which I’m like, wow, okay. This is and I feel like it’s, you know, it’s been covered a little bit. Your reporting has been great from from this stuff. Eileen and I know Alex Kofman, HuffPost, who has done a bunch of reporting on this. And like, you know, there’s been some stories, but I feel like the the fact that, you know, we’re getting close to half of states have these bills on the books now and there’s a bunch more being being proposed. There have been national versions proposed. None have passed yet, but it’s pretty scary. I’ve also heard stories about really shady shit, like people calling CPS on land defenders. For example. And like Child Protective Services. So like, if you’re out at a protest, they’re sending Child Protective Services to your house and questioning, you know, whether you’re a negligent parent, for example.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh, my God, that is diabolical.
Amy Westervelt: Really fucked up. Yeah. So I really I think for, you know, probably reasons that are rooted in, you know, long standing racism and colonialism, there’s like this really intense fear of indigenous protest in particular. And yes, like man, the organized response to it is, is is scary and will absolutely affect like every other anyone else who might protest anything as well you know.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mhm.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Anyway sorry rabbit hole. But I think it’s so important and I’m so glad that you brought that up Alleen. It’s.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: It’s gross.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. Yeah. And, and, you know, with, with that legislation that you’re talking about, too, it was the American Legislative Exchange Council that, you know, ALEC, that was pushing a lot of that. They had model legislation that.
Amy Westervelt: It was written by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers guys and then handed to ALEC. Yeah, it’s gross. Totally. It’s like 100% industry funded, written and orchestrated.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mm hmm.
Amy Westervelt: It’s gross. Really gross.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: So we are going to get into where the media has been on this story, but really quick. Just need to take an ad break.
Amy Westervelt: [AD].
Mary Annaïse Heglar: So the media has traditionally done not the greatest job of connecting the dots on prisons and climate, but work like yours and drew cases and some other reporters that that Amy’s mention. I feel like a starting to change that. Does it seem like from where you are people are getting how and why the two things are connected?
Alleen Brown: I feel like this year I’m starting to see more local reporting, especially around prisons and heat. You know, over the last few weeks, obviously, it’s been just deadly hot in a lot of states. And, you know, I saw reports from Massachusetts, Oklahoma, New York, Florida, Texas about prisons that lack air conditioning and how it is really risky for the people inside. So, you know, I think local reporting is so important and I think it’s heartening to see people drawing attention to that. I don’t know if the climate crisis connection is always made. It would be good to see more underlining the fact that yeah, it’s bad now, but it’s going to get worse. I think that just adds a lot of urgency. And I would love to see more reporters incorporating that into their work.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mm hmm.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: So think fast. What. What are the top reasons climate and prisons are connected?
Amy Westervelt: Oh, structural racism. Structural racism?
Alleen Brown: Yeah. I mean. Ugh. The top reasons climate. I mean, you know, these are people that have been dubbed by our power systems as people that are no longer valuable, that have crossed a line and that, you know, deserve to be punished. So, you know, if we have these if they’re then in the care of the the state that has given them this designation, do we trust that that same state, which is already kind of stripped of resources, that they’re going to fully fund these facilities that they’ve set up and take care of the people that they, you know, don’t feel great about? I’ve just heard a lot of people argue that environmental crisis is sort of inherent to the system of mass incarceration because it’s never going to be a top funding priority.
Amy Westervelt: Mm hmm.
Alleen Brown: So, you know, even in cases where there are legislators pushing for air conditioning funding, education isn’t being fully funded. Do we think that prisons are going to be and I mean, that aside, a lot of, you know, abolitionists the abolitionists argument is that we shouldn’t be spending a bunch of money installing air conditioning instead. The only real solution to a prison system that is subject to more heat and more kind of climate induced crises is decarceration and shutting these facilities down.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Amy, I want your opinion, too. And then yeah, I have one, of course.
Amy Westervelt: I think I mean, I see I feel like you got the the corrupt and kind of overburdened mass incarceration system in the U.S. from a lot of the same drivers as as the climate crisis. Right. It’s power imbalance. It’s the idea that some people get to decide what other people are worth. It’s it’s, you know, major kind of structural issues where those who are most vulnerable are being put in a position to be most impacted by, you know, this system and by climate change and by lots of of other kind of entrenched systemic injustices. So, yeah, I kind of see them as like two sides of the same coin or maybe better put like to.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. For me, I think one of the main reasons is that, you know, they’re. But by the grace of God, go every single one of us. Like it’s not. It doesn’t take much, really, especially depending on your demographics to wind up inside of one of these institutions. But also, you know, we should care about them because they’re people and they still matter. And the other thing I think about a lot is that so prisons are prisoners are on the front lines of the impacts of climate change. And they’re also like the first people tapped to respond to a disaster from the firefighters. Right. Like right now, we’ve got all these images of prisoners as firefighters, but also, like they tend to like, you know, salt the sidewalks after a blizzard or helped to build the levees, you know, and like that practice goes back really, really far. And I don’t know how to look at that without seeing slavery. And so that’s. That’s another reason. And another thing that Drew talked about when we had him on last time, Drew Costley, about how prisons actually generate a lot of of carbon. And so a prisoner can have a higher carbon footprint through no choice of their own, simply by the fact of being in prison, which is, like, kind of crazy.
Alleen Brown: Yeah, that is incredible.
Amy Westervelt: Hmm. Mm hmm. Let’s talk more about the prison labor thing, because I feel like that is something that a lot of people still don’t necessarily know about. But yeah, especially as there are more and more extreme weather events that require labor to deal with in various ways. A lot of that labor is people labor.
Alleen Brown: And I would also mention, you know, I was just talking with someone who is incarcerated in a facility that lacks air conditioning and this individual, you know, their job or it was a family member of this individual, their job is to keep the ice filled in this an air conditioned prison. You know, that’s like what the state the state is like. We’re not gonna put air conditioning in, but we’ll give you guys ice. So it’s a person who’s incarcerated that has to keep that ice build. And he said he is working seven days a week, you know, to to mitigate this problem that the prison system has created and, you know, has become kind of ill from working so hard and not getting a break and working without climate control. Wow.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, it’s it’s it’s crazy. And in a lot of these instances, you know, Mary, you mentioned the firefighters. I know this is true of them. And I’m pretty sure it’s true of some of the other folks who are kind of pressed into disaster relief work. You know, they’re acquiring skills that they’re then not even allowed to kind of put on a resume and use later. I think California just passed a law this past year that changes that. And they’re the the first and I think so far the only state that’s done that that allows people who get training as firefighters while they’re incarcerated to actually like, you know, have that on their resume and have that count towards some kind of certification when they get out. But for years, people were just doing this like, you know, they get paid 1 to $2 an hour and that’s it. And I think it’s Arizona in just the last couple of years, they actually now have more incarcerated firefighters than non treated firefighters. Which is like pretty staggering.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: So crazy to me that like these folks are locked up because they’re supposed to be a threat to public safety. But then when there’s an actual threat to public safety, these are the people we put on the front lines. And it’s like I just it seems so inhumane to send them back to prison after that.
Amy Westervelt: Well, and when you when you ask. Yes, when you ask them about that, they’re like, oh, no, it’s fine. Because they’re only in for like some like low level misdemeanors, like drunk driving or this or that. And I’m like, then why are they just let them out then?
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Right.
Alleen Brown: Well, and I’m curious to see how much will see that increase because again, you know, thinking about these like the austerity that so many local communities are living under, you know, if we’re seeing more and more climate crisis impacts and the state is figuring out how to fund it without ever raising taxes and, you know, without ever taxing the wealthy or minimal taxing the wealthy, who is where are they going to get free labor? So I think that’s something that needs to be watched really closely moving forward.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. I mean, another thing to think about in these prisons, like we were talking about, oh, they can have a bigger carbon footprint without any, you know, fault of their own. So prisoners are counting on the census for where they are incarcerated, but they don’t get to vote at all. And so it kind of becomes this modern version of the 3/5’s compromise.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Amy Westervelt: Well. And then that made me think of how, you know, a lot of times when people are talking about climate action and the need for climate policy and all that stuff, the responses often vote, right? Well, in this case, not only can you not vote, but also like your existence is being potentially used to rig the system to block any kind of climate policy.
Alleen Brown: Right. Right.
Amy Westervelt: So it’s really like. Yeah.
Alleen Brown: It’s really hard to move through those systems. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: When you were talking, Alison, about the free labor thing and like where where are these people? Where are these places going to get, you know, free or very cheap labor in a way that doesn’t impact wealthy people? It just makes me think of the fact that a lot of these places are on the sites of former slave plantations and like that’s the whole thing, right? It’s always in this country. Like, how are we going to, you know, get more free and cheap labor without bothering wealthy people and. Well, and.
Alleen Brown: You know, Angola, Louisiana is an example of that, where it was built on a former, you know, plantation that used enslaved people for labor. And, you know, they’re badly impacted by climate issues. There’s a lot of flooding there, a lot of heat and a lot of minimally compensated labor.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mm hmm. Yeah, it is a plantation. It never stopped being a plantation.
Amy Westervelt: Right. It’s like it changed the name on the outside, but it’s still the same placeall along.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Did they change the name on the outside? I don’t even know.
Amy Westervelt: Just, I’m guessing from like plantation to prison.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. Oh, yeah they changed that part. Right. So one of the things we’ve talked a lot about is the lack of air conditioning in these prisons.
Alleen Brown: Mm hmm.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Tuning in from Louisiana in July. It’s hot. So I was wondering, what do you think is next in the battle for air conditioning and prisons? I know you’ve written about how Texas is currently ground zero, and it’s also the state with an isolated power grid. You know, I’m seeing all these notices about turn off air conditioning during these hours for just like regular citizens. Yeah. And it makes me think of during the California drought, they turned off the outside showers for prisoners in California. So I’m wondering what happens in these prisons when there’s calls to cut power consumption. But also, what do you think is next for air conditioning in prisons?
Alleen Brown: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. There’s so much there. I mean, big picture, I would say that we’re really kind of at a crossroads in terms of what because of the climate crisis, in terms of what is going to happen with these prisons. Mm hmm. You know, basically, I believe they’re either going to have to invest millions and billions of dollars into infrastructure for these facilities because the heat is going to get a lot worse and there’s going to be wrongful death lawsuits. And they don’t want those. So or, you know, it’s going to force the states to move. So, you know, already I think we’re seeing more states talking about installing air conditioning. A lot of places that didn’t want to. Were just utterly uninterested in the past. Suddenly you see politicians or at least corrections officials kind of moving on it. You know, I’m not saying that that’s going to happen quickly, but Mississippi, for example, just set aside a bunch of funding to or just committed, I guess, to install air conditioning in all its prisons. Some of that coming from, you know, COVID relief funds, ARPA funds.
Alleen Brown: So–.
Amy Westervelt: That’s so interesting.
Alleen Brown: —You know, so on the one hand, I think we’re going to see a lot of places actually installing air conditioning in the decades ahead or maybe even in the years ahead. But I think that a lot of people are pointing out rightfully that it’s unlikely to really resolve the problem for exactly the reasons that you’re describing. Already in California, for example, and probably other states. But California is the one I’m kind of familiar with when they ask community members to turn off their air conditioning or lessen their energy usage during a heat wave. People who are incarcerated don’t have a choice. Those facilities at times are basically cut off from the grid and put on generator power, which doesn’t always actually power the climate control systems where they exist. So an air conditioned facility might no longer be air conditioned during the hottest times of the year. You know, I think we’ll see prisons or that prisons are always going to be the first ones to have their climate controls and air conditioning shut off when the grid is under pressure, you know, so we can invest all this money into new prison infrastructure or start thinking really seriously about decarceration and different kinds of systems of accountable. Ability. You know, because something’s got to give.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. I just looked up, you know, what you were saying about Mississippi. And this is the first headline I see after 121 scalding Mississippi Summers Parchment prison is getting air conditioning.
Alleen Brown: Uh huh. Yep.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Well, I mean, I guess that’s an improvement. I would like to see the prison not be there anymore. But.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing for people who are inside. It’s just the I mean, the descriptions I hear a lot of people compare it to like a hot car, a sauna. It’s just that kind of completely oppressive heat that you cannot escape. And it’s really dangerous for a lot of people.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah, I feel like, you know, the the stories I hear about like the some of the most extreme cruelty in prison usually happens when it’s really hot.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. I mean, back to this issue of violence and heat. I mean, I have a short fuze when it’s hot out, it’s like so not only are people, you know, not only are people perhaps facing more police violence on the streets, perhaps being arrested at higher rates. But inside of these facilities, I’m hearing that a lot of times the corrections officers are harsher during the heat. You know, they’re there’s also more fights inside during the heat. And again, getting back to this issue of, oh, will infrastructure adjustment solve the problem? Already I’ve heard a number of accounts of climate control being used as punishment when somebody does something that a corrections officer doesn’t like. So, you know, the fans being turned off because someone complained about something or heat or air conditioning being blasted because someone complained or did something that, you know, the officer didn’t like. So I think there’s a lot.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah I heard about that during the Texas freeze.
Alleen Brown: Mhm. Yeah. Yeah. Right, exactly.
Amy Westervelt: That is disgusting. Isn’t that a human rights violation. I mean like I know that there are lots of things that would qualify as human rights violations in U.S. prisons. But like I am curious if there’s any, any kind of body even outside of the country that’s looking at like at this from that standpoint.
Alleen Brown: Yes. Outside the country, I think that there has been some movement, but I can’t speak directly to it. I mean, within the U.S. court system, there have been rulings that a lack of or I guess heat in in certain prisons constitutes Eighth Amendment, Eighth Amendment violation. So cruel and unusual punishment, as well as violations of the the Americans with Disabilities Act. And basically, it’s like if they know that the heat is dangerous to people and they’re not doing anything about it, then, you know, that can constitute cruel and unusual punishment. And by now they know, you know, so I think there is some legal precedent. And I just there’s no way. Hundred and 510 degrees in one of these facilities. There’s just no way that you can argue that that’s not a human rights violation I think.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mhm. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: Mhm.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: And it can get even hotter inside the prison I believe because like. Yeah. They’re Yeah. They’re constructed of materials that retain heat and also they tend to be in really humid places like Texas. So.
Amy Westervelt: Mmmhmm Uh huh.
Alleen Brown: Right into the heat index too is the real, you know, the combination of heat, temperature and humidity often is a lot higher than the the actual temperature.
Amy Westervelt: Right. Right. I know I have that I have that thing on my phone now that I actually look at now that I live in a warm, humid place where it’s like humidity is this, which means it feels like it’s 97 even though it’s 90 or whatever, you know? Um.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: That’s important.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, it is. Yeah. Really, it makes a big difference.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. Yeah. I feel like heat is one of those. Like, it’s, it’s it’s definitely an acute climate impact, but it’s kind of like it stays and sits for a while. And I want to talk more about the ones that kind of like spike up like a hard.
Alleen Brown: Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Hurricanes and fires. But again, ad break.
Amy Westervelt: [AD]
Mary Annaïse Heglar: So another thing about prisons and I think we need to talk more about it in terms of climate change is like how do you evacuate a prison when there’s a fire nearby or a hurricane approaching? And that’s one of the saddest things about the situation of prisons during a disaster, because they don’t get to decide when to leave. They don’t like I was thinking about that as I was evacuating for Hurricane Ida was the first time I’ve ever. Yeah, yeah. That’s the first time I’ve ever evacuated for a storm before. And it was like I had all of this agency. I had all this autonomy to decide. Do I leave it this way? Do I leave it all? What do I take with me? And they don’t have that power. They don’t have that privilege.
Amy Westervelt: We talked about this, I think, Mary, because I was having the same I was evacuating from a fire the same time that Mary was evacuating from a hurricane. And we and we talked about this like, jeez, because it was like the same kind of thing, like do a two go. You know, there’s that window of time and and yeah, like not being able to make that decision at all or have any control over it, it would be really terrifying.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Exactly. And knowing that the people who have the power to make that decision for you have not necessarily shown you that they care about your life.
Alleen Brown: Mm hmm. Right.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Alleen Brown: I mean, in a lot of cases, they just don’t evacuate those facilities because, you know, it’s it’s a it is a logistical nightmare to evacuate hundreds or thousands of people that have been dubbed security concerns in the middle of a hurricane or wildfire. So just because a community has been dubbed an evacuation zone and everyone’s told to leave does not at all mean jails or prisons in the area will be evacuated because they’re thinking about a whole different set of issues, not only looking at the security threat that the fire or storm represents, but also what they believe to be the security threat that these people represent. So sometimes that might override what would be an obvious evacuation situation for everyone else. So in a lot of cases, they’re just left in these places.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Horrifying. Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever I don’t think I’ve only heard of like one or two prison evacuations because of because of an event like this. I was wondering if you found any instances in your reporting of when administration has actually practice evacuations or even anything as simple as a tornado drill? Like, are prisoners getting any sort of training on this, how how to handle themselves in a disaster?
Alleen Brown: I would say it varies pretty dramatically. I think state to state, state and even facility to facility. I have at least one person described to me some kind of like evacuation practice run that they did like a drill, but they said they believed that it was in part, you know, a move that would allow guards to go in and search their stuff. So they didn’t feel like they really came out of it with a lot of understanding of how to actually handle a situation should it arise. And most of the people I’ve spoken to said that they’ve never done any kind of drill.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Wow. Yup, that’s what I expected, but not what I hope for.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: What about earthquakes, too? Sorry, that’s not a climate one. It just got me thinking. Wow.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Okay, I’m going to ask a real dumb question, I guess, but what do you do?
Amy Westervelt: There’s no such thing as dumb questions, Mary. I’m just kidding.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Well, what do you do in an earthquake? Like you just.
Alleen Brown: Oh, I don’t know.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: There’s no way to run.
Amy Westervelt: Oh, you. Yeah. You definitely don’t run. You you actually get into a doorway of a building that’s the safest place.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh.
Amy Westervelt: Because there’s there’s like, you know, especially if you’re in a state that has earthquakes like California, you know, it’s it’s like seismically designed so that the structure will not, like, come down on your head. It used to be like when I was a kid, they would have us practice getting under desks. But then they were like, oh, no, that’s dumb. Doorways. Doorways. Yeah, that’s what you do. But then, I mean, like, post a big earthquake, you know, you have no electricity, you have no water. I know. I was I was in there was one in Hawaii a while ago that that I was in. And we didn’t have power water for like five days after. So then, you know, in a prison situation, I would imagine that that can happen with with hurricanes and fires, too. It’s like not just the immediate crisis, but also then what do you do when like the one good news story we read about this was was that one that you found, Mary, where people actually swam out of a prison that was flooded?
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh, in the Philippines. Did you hear about this, Alleen?
Alleen Brown: No, no, I don’t think.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: So. There was a typhoon in the Philippines in 2013 and it was like a dozen or so prisoners actually escaped by swimming away.
Alleen Brown: Wow. Amazing.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: I think they were recaptured, but still, like for a moment there.
Alleen Brown: Right. Right. Can you imagine?
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah.
Alleen Brown: But yeah, I mean, an example of like multiple things that you guys have just brought up is last year in Susanville, California, there were wildfires. I think multiple wildfires or maybe a complex of wildfires was threatening Susanville, California. You know, people were told to get ready to evacuate. A lot of people were evacuating. And there’s multiple prisons around Susanville. So one of those prisons, the California Correctional Center, I spoke to folks who were inside and they were terrified about what was going to happen and if they were going to evacuate. But not only that, also, they had been without power for weeks because the wildfires had taken down power lines that fed the grid that they were a part of. So they were supposed to be on generator power. Well, in one of the yards, the generator was not working properly. So people were basically sitting in the dark for weeks, for weeks on end. The ventilation system would totally go out at times. So they’re dealing with this like bad smoke, obviously terrible for people who have respiratory issues. And if the power goes out, you’re on lockdown. You know, they don’t let you like go be in communal areas like you normally would get as many phone calls as you normally would, etc.. And with the power outages and other cases and maybe in this one too, but I’m not totally sure. I’ve spoken to people who’ve dealt with power outages during hurricanes. And one of the issues that comes up a lot is that the toilets stop working. So you end up with like feces piling up.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Really horrible smell.
Alleen Brown: Horrible, horrible smell, bad ventilation because you don’t have any power. So it’s bad.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. And also like just like huge potential for spread of illness and all kinds of oh, just really.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: GROSS Yeah. I got to say, Alleen, I noticed that as a theme in your work.
Alleen Brown: Oh. Which one?
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Rotting sewage in prisons.
Alleen Brown: Oh, Yeah, I mean its true and it’s gross. And so, like, we have to talk about it.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. And I mean, honestly, like, it is really gross, but it’s also really severe health impact.
Alleen Brown: Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Or health risks
Alleen Brown: Yeah, totally. Like people don’t feel like they can go to the bathroom and if they do go to the bathroom there, you know, it’s piling up in sometimes these like communal dormitories with a lot of people. The this individual Angel who I profiled in one of my stories, you know, like we were discussing, he left Honduras during Hurricane Mitch, came to the US and was eventually arrested for an incident that he attributes to self-defense. Spent seven years in prison, which is what the, you know, state deemed appropriate and then was sent straight to ICE detention because he was undocumented. So then he was in ICE detention for another seven years, which is really a long time for ICE detention, you know?
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah.
Alleen Brown: So and he just repeatedly this basically climate migrant repeatedly faced really nasty climate issues in ICE detention, including this incident where in Louisiana, where I think it was Hurricane Laura came through and the toilets weren’t working, ventilation wasn’t working. Right. And he said people were defecating on the trees that food had been served on because the toilets were too full and it was just gross. So this guy had has asthma that was really aggravated. He couldn’t eat. It’s just like horrific conditions that you could not wish on anyone. And this person at that point was in this situation because he refused to drop his asylum claim. So it’s just awful.
Amy Westervelt: Wow.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh, that makes me so angry.
Alleen Brown: Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: Oh. Yeah. Well, I mean, the the ICE detention centers in general, like so many people are, they’re in part at least because of some kind of climate related thing. Right? Like maybe there was a death, a disaster or there’s a drought or, you know, I know there are other things, too. But even in cases where it’s violence, like sometimes that’s been exacerbated by climate disasters and then they get stuck in these these places where they’re at even bigger risk of of these extreme weather events. I just like. Yeah.
Alleen Brown: Right. Yeah. I mean, again, so many of us like move or make choices really. Like move, you know, do something to make ourselves feel better or feel safer when a storm fire or even heat is coming at us. You know, these people are totally at the mercy of a state that has deemed them criminals.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Mmmhmm.
Amy Westervelt: Yes.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yup. And there’s, you know. Yeah, a lot of these states are run by, you know, this Crime and Punishment party that thinks that, like, if you’ve been convicted of something, you don’t deserve any kindness, any mercy ever again for the rest of your life, which is just a crazy.
Amy Westervelt: What is your only quote unquote crime is like trying to move out of the path of some other disaster, climate or otherwise, you know, like, I just.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah, yeah.
Amy Westervelt: That’s very depressing.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. So another thing I learned from your reporting is that for two years running, Senator Tammy Duckworth has introduced a bill that would require the borough to submit detailed annual damage reports describing how federal prisons and the people inside them did during major disaster. I was wondering if you had any more updates on the bill.
Alleen Brown: You know, I am not sure if that has recently been raised again and where it went. I mean, I know it failed a couple of years in a row, but, you know, having that information would be a really great start because right now we just it’s kind of a black hole. You know, you ask for information about how facilities are impacted. And unless corrections departments are really compelled to share that information, they’re not going to. You know, another interesting thing about that, Bill, is that it would kind of encourage these departments to consider climate mitigation tactics that include decarceration, like sending people home or sentence reductions. I think I mean, that might have been specifically aimed at federal prisons. I’m not totally sure, but.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah, it was.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, it’s a it would be a decent start. Yeah. Right now there’s lots of studying happening, I think, starting to happen and lots of like, oh, maybe we should put air conditioning in here. But people and their family members and loved ones who are really at risk, it’s every year, every day. It’s really not enough.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah. I also kind of wonder about the corrections officer. Sorry to go back to the evacuations.
Alleen Brown: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Like the stories you hear of cruelty in these prisons. I wouldn’t be surprised if corrections officers were like, you know, I’m just going to evacuate and I’m going to go here. I mean, it happens. Ah, in Katrina. I’m sure it’s happened other times. I don’t know. Have you heard anything about that?
Alleen Brown: I mean, what I have heard is that a lot of facilities end up understaffed during like if a wildfire is coming through, like people in Susanville, the California Correctional Center, were saying that they were really understaffed because people were trying to get their family members safe. You know, the corrections officers were so they weren’t they were calling into work. Also, I mean, in a lot of states, there’s really bad issues with understaffing in prisons because corrections officers are really underpaid and the conditions are bad. So, yeah, Florida has a really dramatic problem with that right now. And one of the reasons that some of these states are actually talking about air conditioning in prisons is because they’re having these staffing issues and they think, you know, that that the heat might be a reason that they’re struggling to retain officers.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh, that’s a really good point. Yeah, because they’ve got to be in there with all that heat all day, too.
Alleen Brown: Yeah, it’s nasty. I mean, you know, I’m also hearing that in a lot of places, the correctional corrections officers areas are blasting air conditioning and people are like in there with coats on.
Amy Westervelt: Oh, my. God. It’s like if they have, like, an office.
Alleen Brown: Yeah, of course. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: Where there is good climate control.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Oh, my gosh. What a dick move.
Amy Westervelt: That is a real dick move.
Alleen Brown: Mmmhmm Yeah
Amy Westervelt: Oh, God. Wow. Wow. Yeah. Well, Alleen, what’s. What’s like. What are you working on now? Anything you can tell us about that? Like, you’re kind of looking at or tracking or particularly interested in kind of on this this be.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. I mean, right now, I guess I’m really into. One thing I’m interested in doing is just after having done this massive project, kind of using my knowledge of how to reach sources and to cover some of this stuff as it happens. You know, so right now, I’m trying to reach out to a lot of folks to hear about how they’ve been impacted by the heat this year. You know, I’m I’m pretty interested in Texas and some of the you know, they have they do have a lot of heat mitigation measures in place that they’ve established because there are all these wrongful death lawsuits around like 2011 or so. So instead of installing air conditioning in the facilities, they have these like elaborate heat health scores and, you know, respite, respite areas and rules around water. But I think there’s a lot of questions about how effective those really are. And, you know, whether some of the numbers around heat and health are accurate. You know, so the the Department of Corrections says that they have, like, hardly any heat illnesses in in recent years. And I’m I’m not so convinced of that. So I think that there’s some reporting to do there. And, you know, I think there’s Texas gets a lot of attention, but states like Alabama and Florida also lack air conditioning and have a lot of people in really bad conditions. And so, you know, I I’m eager to kind of follow these climate crises in these prisons as they in real time as they hit. Obviously, we’re getting into wildfire and hurricane season, too, so we’ll see. And, you know, I think it’s just an issue that need I’m it’s really awesome that this isn’t the first episode that you guys have done on this. Like, I think it’s something that needs to be hammered over and over again because these are people who are going to be left behind and forgotten as the climate crisis deepens, unless there’s attention just repeatedly put on on this system of best conservation and how it’s faring under the climate crisis.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for for joining us. We’re like we were both really pumped that you were able to do that so very very good to talk to you. Can’t wait to see all the the work that you’ll be doing the rest of this year. And yeah. Just appreciate everything you’ve done.
Alleen Brown: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It was a real pleasure. Umm, depressing, but good to talk.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: We like to say we’re the cathartic climate podcast.
Alleen Brown: Yassss.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: So that’s that’s the Hot Take guarantee. I said that last episode and I’m going to keep saying it until we get complaints. Hot Take is a Crooked Media production.
Amy Westervelt: It’s produced by Ray Peng and mixed and edited by Juels Bradley. Our music is by Vasilis Fotopoulis. Thimali Kodakara is our consulting producer and our executive producers are Mary Annaïse Heglar, Michael Martinez and me, Amy WESTERVELT.
Mary Annaïse Heglar: Special thanks to Sandy Girard, Ari Schwartz, Kyle Seglin, and Charlotte Landes for production support and to Amelia Montooth for digital support.
Amy Westervelt: You can follow the show on Twitter at Real Hot Take. Sign up for our newsletter at Hot Take Pod dot com and subscribe to Crooked Media’s video channel at YouTube.com slash Crooked Media.