What climate change means for incarcerated people

How is climate change creating disproportionate impacts among incarcerated people?

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes 

July is a big month for independence. As you probably know, the 4th of July is a big deal in the United States, characterized by fireworks, meat, and more fireworks. There are also independence celebrations in Burundi, Canada, Belarus, Mongolia, France, Belgium, Egypt, Morocco, and any other countries that a quick Google search hasn't told us about. 

But, we want to talk about the people who do not have independence in any context: people who are incarcerated.

Here’s what we’ll cover step-by-step: 

  1. READ: What does climate change have to do with prisons, anyway?
  2. WATCH: What’s the lethal toll of hot prisons?
  3. ACT: How can we challenge mass incarceration in a warming world?
  4. REFLECT: How did someone’s love of books make them rethink mass incarceration?

Also, thanks to our ✨global economy✨, prison labor is responsible for a LOT of the things that enter our homes and offices. It's LONG overdue to talk about how prisons, mass incarceration, and climate change are linked, and what we can do to create freedom for all of us in a warming world.

Please note that a lot of the resources below are US-based, but it's not a uniquely United States problem.

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 7,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

How policing is a climate issue

🎯 Action step 1 of 4: READ — Let's start by looking at a few articles together.

We want to level-set on an extremely important assumption. (If we do not agree on this, then this content likely will not resonate with you.)

Being incarcerated doesn't make you a bad person.

At Soapbox, we try to challenge these "good" and "bad" binaries. We can chat about that in detail some other time. For now, let's get to the facts!

People in prisons are treated as sub-human, and it's getting worse with climate change. 

​Temperatures in Texas routinely exceed triple digits, and prisons lack air conditioning. We’ll leave it to you to read this article to learn more. 

Policing is a climate issue because…

This HEATED article makes the connection between racist policing and climate disasters. For example, police murdered environmental activist Tortuguita who was shot 58 times. New Orleans residents were shot by police as they fled Hurricane Katrina. During Hurricane Harvey, incarcerated people were not evacuated in Houston. Police departments also get funding for disaster relief. So, "the same people that the police treat like enemy combatants will be at their mercy in a climate crisis."

Two South Carolina women drowned in a prison transport van (which two deputies escaped). So... that's where we're at.

Also, police can charge environmental activists with "domestic terror." 

​Police around the world have historically used their power to suppress social movements. Atlanta Cop City protestors have been charged with domestic terror for having mud on their shoes

It's not about conviction or public safety; it's about repression. 20 states in the US have passed laws that criminalize protesting. Indigenous activists fighting against pipelines in the US and British Columbia in Canada have been prosecuted. And guess what? Most places won't hire someone with a felony charge, so the stakes for protecting our planet are deeply tied to the prison-industrial complex.

Police helicopters are a form of environmental racism.

HEATED shares that police helicopters are harmful to the environment. The Los Angeles Police Department released nearly 3x more CO2 than the highest-emitting private jet traveler. The constant surveillance makes LA's communities of colors more vulnerable to extreme heat and climate disasters. Deadly heat waves in California have already killed ~4,000 people in the past decade. Residents who are disproportionately affected by both heat and police surveillance (Black residents, specifically) often have to choose between opening their windows for life-saving relief or being kept up at night with the sound of terrorizing helicopters.

What else?!

Prison Policy's overview of the daily environmental justice of prisons, Think Global Health's article on Climate Change and Incarceration, Grist's article demonstrating how incarcerated people are uniquely exposed to environmental hazards and the study on extreme heat being responsible for hundreds of deaths in Texas prisons, The Regulatory Review's The Truth About Toxic Prisons, and PJP's article "When You Sit in the Path of a Hurricane -- and Can't Move" are all informative (and sad) reads on the connection between incarceration and climate change. 

Mariame Kaba's "Summer Heat" essay was heartbreaking—if you're looking for more personal accounts and stories and want to challenge yourself to think more deeply about what freedom means and whom it's for, give it a read.

We know this topic is heavy, and we’re proud of you for sticking with it. We hope you take a walk, breathe in some fresh (ish) air if you can, and send some gratitude into the universe for the freedom that you do have. Life is amazing, and YOU are here to create a safe and healthy planet for everyone. 

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 1 of 4: READ.

What climate change means for people in prisons

🎯 Action step 2 of 4: LISTEN — we'll watch a short video or listen to a podcast to further expand on our topic.

This is horrible to say, but there's no euphemism we can come up with. People in prisons are being baked alive in the summer heat.

This video is about the lethal toll of prisons. It's part of a collaboration between The Marshall Project and The Weather Channel. (P.S. Shoutout to The Weather Channel for taking a stand.)

One of the most horrifying things to us is that this is based on a "record heat wave" in 2011. That was over a decade ago, and things are considerably worse.​

It's unacceptable to us that someone should suffer a death sentence, especially when one isn't given in the first place. Elderly and sick people serving prison sentences have it extra bad, and no one should suffer the cruel and unusual punishment of extreme heat. The video is below, and the full article / feature is linked here.

You’ll learn:

  • 🩺 Many people in prison suffer from mental illnesses and are medicated for them. Many of these medications affect your body's abilities to lose heat, so some incarcerated people stop taking them in the summer. It's no surprise, then, to know that suicides and violence spikes in the summer.
  • 💨 Air conditioning is the only remedy to cool the temperature of the air in prisons. Fans do not protect people from death due to heat, and prisons do not find air conditioning a necessary amenity.
  • ☀️ In 2011, there were over 40 days with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8C). And that was a decade ago.
  • 🐷 Official policy in Texas, where this video is filmed, states that even pigs must be kept in an air conditioned environment. Under 85F! Pigs have more rights than humans in Texas! Also, a very un-fun fact: Guantanamo Bay, known around the world as a torture camp, is reported to be air conditioned. 

Your takeaways from the video are of course yours, but we hope that any sadness you may feel is paired with a recognition that we are all agents of change.

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 2 of 4: LISTEN.

Actions you can take to challenge mass incarceration

🎯 Action step 3 of 4: ACT — Now it's time to do something. Let's go!

If you don't know about Mariame Kaba yet, here's a treat in the form of her Wikipedia page.

Mariame Kaba is an activist, abolitionist, and organizer. Her book, We Do This 'Til We Free Us, opened our minds— not just on prisons and abolition, but on the radical change that's possible with community organizing. She shared 9 Solidarity Commitments to/with Incarcerated People for 2021. Many of the actions below have been adapted from resources she's published. Here are five things you can do to dismantle systems of human cruelty.

1. Every day this week, set aside five minutes to journal about the good things in your life.
Here are questions that have helped us: 1) What do I love about my life that everyone deserves to have?; 2) What is my purpose, beyond work?; 3) What keeps me going every day?

This might sound like a fluffy action, but remember, YOU are an important part of the solution. You can't be that if you feel too sad or burnt out to do anything positive.

2. See if brands you buy from use prison labor.
Spoiler alert: it's really difficult to find companies that do NOT use prison labor somewhere in their value chain. In fact, if you run any company that provides physical goods, even if you're doing your very best, your products have probably benefited from this kind of modern-day slavery (that's getting worse on a warming planet). Look through this database to realize that we have SO MANY inroads to being part of the solution!

3. Help provide free mental health services by those affected by incarceration.
The "Find Me A Therapist" program connects formerly incarcerated and criminalized people of color with culturally competent, community-based counseling. You might remember from the video above that people often stop taking their meds in the summer since many medications affect your body's ability to lose heat.

You can donate $25 to Find Me A Therapist here and change lives.

4. Write an op-ed, letter to the editor, letter to a brand you support, or letter to your state representative.
​​You can do this on our own, but if you want to join our next Soapbox advocacy party where we write letters, make a difference, and have a good time, email us at team@soapboxproject.org.

5. Donate a book (or money) to the Appalachian Prison Book Project.
APBP is the organization Lydia (Soapbox reader who inspired this month's entire content) volunteers with. You can read her personal story on our website.

Donating educational resources to prisons goes a long way, and you can do that super duper easily here.

The only way through is through, or however that saying goes. We don't know exactly how we're going to get through this. We just know that it's only possible if we all step up, root ourselves in our own joy, and make something beautiful together.

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 3 of 4: ACT.

Rethinking mass incarceration​

Before we go any further, it's time for you to pledge your commitment. It takes less than 30 seconds to pledge and we can bother you about it in a friendly way, so we can hold each other accountable. Pledge here!

🎯 Action step 4 of 4: REFLECT — what can you commit to? What fresh perspectives can we look at?

One solution to anxiety induced by this horrid system we find ourselves in is taking meaningful action with a community of people. (Easier said than done, we know!) 

Reader Lydia Welker shares how she turned her anxiety into action, and turned her love of books into meaningful justice. Before reading an excerpt from Lydia's reflection, you may want to read and/or bookmark this HEATED edition on "Who gets arrested for climate crimes?" It discusses the incomprehensible ways that climate affects existing injustices.

The following is an excerpt from Lydia's "How loving books made me rethink mass incarceration."

In downtown Morgantown, West Virginia, nestled between the public library and an office building, you will find a historic stone home called the Aull Center. It looks out of place in the best way because—like the house in Pixar’s Up before it’s carried away on the breeze—it is a house with a yard, fighting to survive among concrete parking lots and tan buildings. On the second floor of this unmistakable building, you’ll find a small room stuffed to the brim with books.

There’s something special about a room full of books—the smell of the pages, the art on the covers, the dust lingering in the air, the chaos of mismatched spines on the shelves. And anyone who walks into this room in the Aull Center can sense that the people who spend time here love books, love reading, and love sharing those things with others.

The Appalachian Prison Book Project (APBP) is a small, grassroots nonprofit that sends free books and provides educational opportunities to people incarcerated in prisons and jails in Appalachia. Since it was founded in 2004, we have mailed over 65,000 books to people behind bars.

Volunteers at APBP read letters handwritten by incarcerated people in Appalachia. These letters are requests for books, so our task is to search APBP’s bookshelves, find the best possible match to what the letter writer is looking for, and get the package ready to go in the mail.

It’s these letters that started changing my perspective on incarceration. By now, I’ve read thousands of letters from people behind bars asking for books, but there is one that I’ll never forget:

"Because of your book program sending me Michie’s West Virginia Code Annotated, I was able to litigate an amended sentence order from life without parole to eligibility for parole after serving 15 years. In other words, you helped save my life. Thank you."

It was written by a man incarcerated in West Virginia, and when I read his letter, I was overwhelmed with joy for him but also with deep anger—all it took to save his life was a book. It speaks not only to the power of books but also to the injustices of mass incarceration.

Lydia's story shows us that small, committed actions DO make a difference. That community organizing matters. That everything is connected. That human experiences drive change, not just facts and figures. That WE CAN DO THIS!

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 4 of 4: REFLECT.

Check out our membership community for more resources like free weekly events with social justice experts, sustainable product discounts, pre-written email templates, a social impact job board, and in-person hangouts with new friends. Thanks for taking action with Soapbox Project!

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 7,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

We're ready when you are.

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