At the footsteps of historic wildfires that rampaged across acres of drylands in western United States (US) lay a somewhat surprising figure. Incarcerated men, mostly of non-white backgrounds, led divisions of firefighters to the epicentre of the fires, extinguishing blazes of damage across what once stood flourishing landscapes. While unknown to most of the public eye, incarcerated firefighters have been at the frontlines of disaster management under prison labour schemes for the past few summers, risking their bodies to precarious working conditions and toxic fumes.
The exploitation of incarcerated labour to attenuate rising climate impacts has become an increasing demand given the unpredictable and flux state of wildfires and other climate-induced disasters. Herein lies an ultimate paradox, wherein incarcerated people - who generate a minimal carbon footprint - must bear the impact and responsibilities of climate change.
Throughout history, communities on the margins have always faced environmental injustices. The environmental justice (EJ) movement originated in the 1980s, after activists of colour and low-income communities in the US organised to draw attention to the disproportionate impacts that their communities face, due to their residential proximity to toxic waste and polluted sites. Since then, the EJ movement has expanded its discussions beyond those of race and class, and began to interrogate the role of Indigeneity, nationality, geographical residence, and carcerality in determining climate vulnerabilities.
Due to the deliberate intention to sequester incarcerated people from society, the relationship between incarceration and the climate crisis is often unknown. Despite this erasure, incarcerated people are among the most affected by climate change. In academia, environmental injustices in and around prisons have been well documented by epidemiologists and social scientists. Prisons are often built on superfund sites, polluted areas with hazardous debris and contaminants, which directly expose incarcerated people to contaminated water and overflowing waste systems. Prisons themselves cause environmental harm, with sewage systems contributing to the destruction of local wildlife and forest species.
Inside prisons, climate change has exacerbated living conditions by restricting proper air ventilation and inducing extreme heat and cold during the coldest and warmest months, leading to overheating and hypothermia. Incarcerated people suffer from higher mortality rates vis-à-vis those outside prisons, due to poor carceral infrastructure like sealed windows, old pipes, broken or out-of-date air conditioning, and sanitation services. EJ activists have mobilised in protest of poor medical services inside, which has become an essential need due to the rampant spread of COVID inside prisons.
One of the limitations of this current data is that notions of environmental injustices are often centred around the US prison system. Nevertheless, climate injustices affect incarcerated folks of colour globally, particularly in other settler colonies whose Statehood was built on values of white supremacy. For instance, in Australia, where prison populations are disproportionately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, prison infrastructure has been used to deliberately induce overheating during heatwaves to those living in solitary confinement. Indigenous people in Australian prisons often face further health risks such as heart-related problems, diabetes, and asthma, due to their environmental exposure in prisons and lacking medical services inside.
Controlling temperature for carceral torture is often a methodical tool of the carceral state, which attributes incarcerated people’s deaths inside prisons to individual health outcomes rather than a systemic process of slow thermal violence. Yet, EJ activists have additionally argued that the use of thermal violence against incarcerated people is not limited to institutional prisons. One of the most common misunderstandings of ‘incarcerated’ status is that those living outside of prisons are conversely ‘free.’ In reality, low-income communities of colour and Indigenous people outside of prisons are still incarcerated inconspicuously, through environmental regulations, urban planning, and housing policies.
As targets of mass incarceration, they are also likely to reside near industrial and toxic waste plants that necessitate long-term medical care. Low-income neighbourhoods of colour have higher concentrations of dangerous particulate matter and pollution, which result in residents facing higher levels of non-communicable diseases and prevalence of asthma. While they are not incarcerated inside institutional prisons, these communities are policed in their movement and speech, and are redlined to live in structurally deprived neighbourhoods and reservations.
It is not surprising then, that Indigenous EJ activists have exercised their ethos of decolonisation with a call for abolition and demand for their ‘land back’, given the ways in which environmental injustices have always been intimately tied to their carceral status. While harrowing stories of carceral violence at the hands of the state have emerged in recent years, Indigenous activists have long attributed the inception of environmental degradation to the onset of European colonisation, which came concurrently with the production of the carceral state.
In Australia, the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people depended on the illegal land grabbing and uprooting of Aboriginal people into ‘open-air’ carceral neighbourhoods. In other settler colonies like Canada, New Zealand, and the US, the formation of the carceral and colonial state was predicated on restricting land-holding structures and the building of reservations, all while extracting the remainder of Indigenous land and their resources for profit. Using this logic, white settlers continue to justify their colonisation to reinforce sovereignty over Indigenous territories and have wielded the climate to sustain the exploitation of racialised labour, resources, and knowledge.
Understanding how climate change has historic and contemporary impacts on incarcerated communities reveals how weather has always been a tool for torture, not only to control people inside prisons, but more broadly to dispossess the racialised communities that they largely represent. When examining how the climate crisis impacts incarcerated communities at different geographical scales, understanding histories of climate change is even more relevant and timely for public interest and contemporary mobilisation around anti-racism and decolonisation today.
Mayumi Sato  is a first year PhD student focusing on incarceration and the climate crisis as well as transnational racialized resistance to global environmental injustice.