Climate Change-Driven Higher Temperatures in Prisons Leads to Increased Deaths

Interview with Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

July was the hottest month ever recorded, as temperatures spiked around the world, including in the U.S. The extreme heat seems to have finally melted away the lack of awareness or concern by many in our nation toward the suffering of incarcerated people. It’s often not just prisoners, but correction officers and other prison staff, who live and work in insufferable and sometimes even deadly conditions.

Previous studies have exposed these conditions, but a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative: Heat, floods, pests, disease, and death: What climate change means for people in prison,” illuminates how serious the problem is.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative.  Here she discusses surprising regional data on the impact of extreme heat on prisoners, as well as other conditions exacerbated by climate change, such as flooding and insect infestation.

WANDA BERTRAM: There was some new research that found a very strong correlation between higher temperatures in prisons and a higher number of deaths. So, particularly for every 10 degree increase that prisons across the country experience away from the mean temperature in the summer, there is a jump in the percentage of death attributed to heat by about 5 percentage points. Furthermore, when there’s an extreme heat day, there is an associated 3.5 percent increase in all deaths across the board.

So, we really do see for the first time what I think many people know intuitively to be true, which is that heat kills. People in prisons beyond just being in these environments that can be stifling and suffocating and where it’s difficult to get access to cold water, extra showers, air conditioning, those populations are also disproportionately suffering from health conditions that make them vulnerable to the heat, like diabetes, asthma, hypertension. Many of them are taking psychiatric drugs that make them vulnerable to the heat. That’s playing out in ways that are really deadly.

You asked for any striking examples of how heat is hurting people behind bars. One that I would point out is this research that we recapped in our report looked at how exposure to extreme heat impacts mortality rates in states across the country and it looked at how this differs by region. I was surprised because I assumed – and I think many people would assume – that states in the South would fare the worst, that states in the South are so hot already that when temperatures jump even higher, people experience this large increase in deaths.

But it’s actually states in the Northeast are experiencing the biggest jump. So, after a two-day heat wave, prisons in the Northeast experienced on average a 21 percent increase in deaths. That’s huge. Compared to the South, which experienced about a 1.3 percent increase in deaths; the West experienced an 8.6 percent increase.

So, we know there have been a lot of discussions of how extreme heat is impacting people in prisons in Texas or Louisiana. There was recently an exposition of young people who were being held in these stifling conditions in Angola State Prison (in Louisiana). Those are the ones that get all the media attention, but this new data shows that we can’t let Northeastern states off the hook, because people in Northeastern states are suffering even more when it comes to mortality rates.

MELINDA TUHUS: Is it because people in the South are already used to high heat?

WANDA BERTRAM: It tracks with research that shows or suggests that heat-acclimated populations fare a little better in a hotter world, so, basically, yes.

MELINDA TUHUS: I think some prisons in the South are air-conditioned and some aren’t, is that right?

WANDA BERTRAM: We did a survey of state prisons in the South a couple years ago and what we found is there was only one state we could find that had anything near universal air conditioning and that was Arkansas. Every other state had very clear documented gaps in its prisons.

Recently I’ve been hearing that Georgia prisons are quite without air conditioning right now. You know, people are roasting alive inside there and nobody should have to experience those conditions. It’s cruel and unusual and it’s been actually been ruled as cruel and unusual by multiple state Supreme courts and even federal courts. But states haven’t done anything about it, in fact they’ve been fighting tooth and nail against lawsuits that would require them to install more air conditioning.

MELINDA TUHUS: You were talking about other climate impacts, or maybe other impacts that go along with heat or maybe are separate from heat related to climate change that people experience in prison.

WANDA BERTRAM: You know, one of the examples we cite in our report when we talk about the different ways climate change is impacting people is a prison in Utah that was just built close to the flats of Salt Lake where mosquito populations have begun to thrive. And even though there was a lot of concern about building a prison in this location, they continued to build it, and now it’s gotten so bad that prison officials don’t know what to do. And their current stopgap solution is to make bug spray available at the commissary.

Now of course you can imagine what a prison is like when people are spraying bug spray everywhere. There’s not a lot of ventilation; that’s not a healthy solution either.

Floods are a big issue for prisons, which are generally not prepared for things like hurricanes.

There needs to be a lot more public pressure to get help for people who are in these institutions, right?

For more information, visit the Prison Policy Initiative at

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