Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Extreme Heat, Fires, and Floods

The Intercept’s Climate and Punishment project captures the peril faced by people in the U.S. detention system amid the climate crisis.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

Smoke-filled cells. Triple-digit temperatures. Chest-deep water. People trapped behind bars when climate disasters strike. This week on Intercepted: Ali Gharib, a senior editor, speaks to his colleagues, reporter Alleen Brown and senior research engineer Akil Harris, about the intersection of climate risks and mass incarceration. For more than a year, Brown and Harris analyzed climate risks to more than 6,500 carceral facilities throughout the U.S.

[Intro theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. 

[Slow, somber music.]

NBC News: Tonight, the largest single wildfire in California history, on the doorstep of more historic small towns.

ABC News: The Dixie Fire in Northern California raging right into the record books. The state’s third largest wildfire in history now, but little signs of slowing down.

Ali Gharib: I’m Ali Gharib, a senior editor with The Intercept.

Last summer, Northern California’s Dixie Fire had already been burning for a month when flames approached the remote town of Susanville. Residents were preparing to evacuate. 

ABC10: Fire officials are telling the communities of Old Station and people living north of Highway 44 to leave their homes.

KTVU FOX 2 San Francisco: Thirty-mile-an-hour winds are pushing the Dixie Fire toward the town of Susanville; 18,000 people live there, including inmates at two state prisons.

AG: The fire had already been wreaking havoc on the main business in town: Susanville is home to two state prisons, each with capacities in the thousands. The wildfire had taken out power lines supplying the prisons, with the California Correctional Center’s C-Yard particularly hit hard: The facility’s backup generator had failed. People incarcerated there had been without lights for nearly a month. 

Desperation and tension were rising:

Alleen Brown: They said it was traumatizing. It was hard to breathe, hard to see. There were no lights in the cells. No TV, no cooking, no personal fans, no time in the communal dayroom, so nothing to distract from this really scary situation. 

For hours-long periods the toilets and ventilation would stop working entirely. And, at times, they would hear someone being taken to medical with the smoke, combined with anxiety. They were just sitting and waiting as this fire was coming closer.

AG: That’s Intercept reporter Alleen Brown. She spoke with two men incarcerated at the C-Yard who had been there when at the time that the Dixie Fire was burning:

AB: So Joseph Vejar, one of the people I spoke to, who was on this inmate advisory council, where he would talk directly to prison officials, and he said he’d never heard of an evacuation plan. 

The other guy I spoke to said there was a padlock put on his cell, because the locks are usually electronically controlled. And when he asked a corrections officer what they would do if the fires got too close, he said they [laughs with astonishment] wouldn’t do anything, and these guys would be left behind.

AG: For more than a year, Alleen and The Intercept’s Senior Research Engineer Akil Harris have been investigating the intersection of the climate crisis and mass incarceration. The resulting multimedia project is called Climate and Punishment

Alleen and Akil analyzed over 6,500 detention facilities throughout the U.S., demonstrating the extreme risks faced by people caught up in the carceral system. 

The Intercept found that many facilities were facing intense risk of climate catastrophes, and that authorities were unwilling to tell people detained inside what emergency plans looked like. When such plans had been discussed – or effectuated – they were consistently inadequate.

We looked at the impact of wildfires, heat, and flooding on American detention facilities.

I spoke with Alleen and Akil about the Climate and Punishment project, starting by breaking down risk of wildfires:

Akil Harris: I think for me, some of the most interesting findings were that there are states that don’t necessarily seem like they would have an extreme wildfire risks that are pretty high on the list of states that have facilities that are actually facing wildfire risk, places like Florida, Kentucky, I know that New Jersey has a number of facilities that are facing wildfire risks. 

So mapping the facilities actually helped see this in a much larger picture, that it’s not only states that you think of — like on the West Coast like California, or Oregon, or Washington that are facing wildfire risk, but it’s spread across the entire country.

AB: Yeah, I also found that super interesting, especially because one of the highest-risk facilities that we identified is the Everglades Correctional Institution — which you think of the Everglades, and you just think of water, you don’t think that this is an area that would be impacted by fires. But actually, that facility has been really close to pretty big wildfires several times in the last few years. The wildfire researcher we spoke to said that the brush there, the landscape is so flammable that the fire can kind of move on top of this swampy area. 

It was also interesting talking to that researcher, Joe Scott from Pyrologix, the organization that put together the data, he was telling us that as they put together this data, he and his team kept noticing these patches of really high-density housing in remote areas that had a lot of wildfire risk. He was especially seeing this in California.

And at first he thought that something was wrong with the data, maybe there was some error, but every time that he would look closer, he would find a jail, find a juvenile detention center, or a prison camp. So this wasn’t something that came out in the data project that he published, but it was notable enough that it really stuck out.

[Contemplative music.]

AG: Now, during this project, you spoke with a lot of people, researchers, incarcerated folks, their loved ones, advocates and politicians. One of the people you spoke with was Jamilia Land.

Jamilia Land: What pains me the most is like his life can be taken by a fire that he can’t escape from.

AG: Jamilia’s husband and son were both incarcerated in California.

JL: I first became aware of the severity of what was happening around September. Both my husband and my son knew that the fires were encroaching. So as I started researching, I realized: I haven’t heard anything about the evacuation policy. 

I asked him to go and talk to a correctional officer to verify if there was, in fact, a plan in place. With me, he was like: Mom, I had one of them laugh in my face and tell me: What do you mean? We leave and go home. Y’all stay here. 

[Voice breaking] We call ourselves a civilized society. Where’s the civilized in that?

AG: Her husband was eventually released and it was a very touching moment for them and their family.

JL: We are anxiously awaiting the release of my husband. I’m nervous. My adrenaline is running. I’m hungry. I’m sleep deprived. But, finally, he’s on his way. 

There’s a van! There’s a van! There’s a van! There’s a van! There’s the van! There’s the van! He’s coming. He’s coming. [Screams three short, high screams of excitement.] Come on baby. Come on baby! [Screams two longer screams of excitement.]

AB: So Jamilia Land’s husband and son were both incarcerated at state prisons this summer in California that were impacted by these big wildfires. They both were dealing with smoky conditions in poorly ventilated prisons. And her son, Elijah, who’s in his 20s was especially struggling. 

So Elijah is asthmatic and, as the fires were getting closer, he came down with Covid. So he told me, he was escorted into this quarantine gym and looked up at the landscape and saw this huge billow of smoke coming down over the hill. And when he asked officers what the evacuation plans were, what was going to happen if this fire got too close? He said that the officers were basically like: What are you talking about? You’re gonna stay here. 

And this was kind of a story that we heard over, and over again, where state corrections departments might say they have these plans, but when people who are incarcerated are stuck in these terrifying situations, and they ask about the plans, they’re kind of told: You’re staying here. Don’t worry about it.

AG: And now that Jamilia’s husband is out, can you tell us how they plan to organize and fight on behalf of incarcerated people who are at risk of these wildfires?

AB: They certainly want details of evacuation plans, and they want to make sure that people are safe, but a lot of their activism is actually centered on getting people out of these facilities to begin with. 

So Jamilia has been super active in trying to get Elijah released. He’s serving a triple life sentence for an armed robbery that went wrong. Three people were shot and killed, but he didn’t pull the trigger; he was convicted on under this felony murder law that was revised months later. So, she doesn’t want him to end his life in a prison outside of which these fires are just getting worse and worse, and getting him out is really the top priority.

So I would say that’s in some ways reflective of activism across the state around this. There’s this coalition called Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) that says that they don’t want millions of dollars invested in repairs for these facilities. Instead, they want 10 facilities shut down and 50,000 people released in the short term. 

So it was really interesting seeing what the data could show us about what individual people were experiencing. The Sierra Conservation Center where Elijah is incarcerated, is in the 99th percentile for wildfire risk in the nation.

AG: You guys also looked at facilities facing extreme heat. What are the conditions like inside these detention centers? Did anyone describe to you what it was like and what it feels like to be in these extremely hot places?

AB: Yeah, we spoke to a number of people who had dealt with this heat. And, in short, it’s horrible. 

I spoke to some folks in Florida. One guy talked about just kind of constantly being damp. The sweat on his skin never dried, so he would break out in rashes and fungal infections. He said it felt like ants were crawling over his body. He couldn’t sleep and felt like that kind of broke him down. 

And another person told me that you already feel like you’re on some other planet in prison. But with the heat, you just feel totally inhuman. It’s just really unbearable, like being stuck in a hot car. 

I also spoke to this guy, Justin Phillips, who is incarcerated in Texas, and Justin has this rare kidney condition that is quite serious. So, shortly after he was diagnosed with this condition, he was sent to the Coffield Unit in Texas, which has no air conditioning. It was a segregation unit, and he spent a year there, and he says, his health really deteriorated over that time.

Justin Phillips: I was incarcerated in units with no air conditioner. Temperatures would get into the 130-degree margin, there’s nothing you can do. It’s like being locked in a parked car. You can’t go anywhere; you’re in a little 8-by-10 cell.

AB: In this case, we were able to look at some heat index records for outside the prison. And we saw that in June the year that he was there, the heat index was above 110 every day of the month, except eight days. So it was super hot. We don’t actually know how hot it was inside the building.

JP: It was a horrible experience, especially me being sick. At that time that I was in the heat, veins in my kidneys failed. I gained a lot of fluid. 

The guards, they’re supposed to pass out water every couple hours. If you get too hot, they’re supposed to take you to a cool shower. That’s a myth. I’ve never seen it happen.

AB: His blood pressure medicine, which is really important for his condition, would make him sick in the high heat, so he would skip doses. And on top of this, at times, he said that guards were not escorting him to take his other medications.

JP: Sometimes they would take me down there, my blood pressure might be 200 over 160. And they would just send me right back to my cell. And high blood pressure will kill your kidneys. My kidney function dropped dramatically. I just accepted the fact that I was going to die.

AB: So with treatment, people diagnosed with this condition are expected to have a 75 percent five-year survival rate. By the time Justin left prison last year, doctors told him he had end-stage renal failure and a likelihood of surviving five years of 40 percent. Now he goes to dialysis treatment three times a week. So he’s not in great shape.

AG: Akil, can you tell us a little bit about the data on heat and kind of the scale of the crisis, and how you’re able to use projections from the Union of Concerned Scientists in order to show how the crisis is going to rapidly deteriorate?

AH: So the scale of heat affecting carceral spaces in the United States is huge. I think, over a third of detention facilities in the U.S. are currently at a severe or extreme heat risk according to our analysis, so that’s over 50 days a year with an average heat index above 90 degrees. And that’s only going to be getting worse as the climate crisis gets exacerbated. 

So according to the data, we’re looking at nearly three-quarters of the U.S. will be at that level in the future.

AG: That’s a massive, massive increase in the amount of extremely hot carceral facilities. 

You guys reported a lot on Texas. Eileen, you mentioned this with the Justin Phillips story. And Texas is getting hotter. And yet some basic resources are missing from especially state prisons there, for example, air conditioning. Can you just tell us a little bit about the fight over air conditioning in Texas prisons?

AB: Yeah. So in Texas, we know that as of 2020, less than one-third of state prisons had full air conditioning. So 21 had no air conditioning, and another 50 or so were only partially air conditioned. 

And so this fight in the legislature over air conditioning actually kind of began with Justin Phillips’ story. His wife really fought hard for him, eventually getting him out of the facility with no air conditioning. But in the process she connected with other family members of incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people and started to really see the scale of the crisis. 

So she founded this organization called Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Advocates; there’s a successor organization that exists now called Texas Prisons Community Advocates. And the group began pushing for legislation that would install air conditioning in these state prisons. 

They had two different bills introduced in two different legislative sessions in Texas — those are only every two years — and the more recent one actually got really close to passing. I believe it passed in Texas’s House of Representatives, but then it just died in the Senate. Nobody moved on it. 

They tried again, this past fall, during the special session where Governor Greg Abbott set the agenda. But again, basically nobody moved on it and it died. 

So now it’s not going to be until 2023 that they have another chance to mandate heat relief for incarcerated people in Texas. And you know, basically tens of thousands of people are stuck in deeply uncomfortable, if not dangerous, situations. 

Greg Abbott was actually Texas’ Attorney General before he was governor. And in that role, he was representing the state as people started filing heat-related lawsuits. Those lawsuits were also led by family members of incarcerated people. In those cases, they were related to individuals who had died during this hot summer in 2011, I believe. His role in all this goes way far back.

[Somber music.]

AG: And that leaves us with the flood data. We’ve seen some recent examples of floods taking place in various facilities around the country. You spoke with some incarcerated people who went through these situations involving floods in detention facilities. Can you tell us what you spoke with them about?

AB: We were looking especially in Florida in this rural county called Dixie County, which flooded pretty miserably this summer. Basically, Tropical Storm Elsa dumped a whole lot of rain in July, but then it just kept raining. And the whole community kind of turned into a lagoon. It basically got no national coverage, so not a lot of people knew that that happened. 

But that county relies a lot on this Cross City Correctional Institution for jobs, and a lot of people are locked up there. So at Cross City in July, visitation hours started to be canceled, which are kind of a lifeline for a lot of people; then the area between buildings started flooding, and classes that people typically take were also canceled. And then it got really nasty inside according to one person that we spoke to. 

So, according to DaRon Jones, who is still incarcerated there, water started coming up through the sewage system. He described ankle-deep water with human waste floating by as they were fed in their cells, and a smell that was just not like anything he’d ever encountered. So he said he was in those conditions for several hours before evacuation. And yeah, I mean, the evacuation process wasn’t great either. Our data shows that Cross City was at severe risk of flooding. 

And we also reviewed a lot of other cases that were basically extreme versions of this. So New Orleans, the Orleans Parish Prison flooded really horribly during Hurricane Katrina, yet people weren’t evacuated; [they] ended up in chest-deep water like this. The U.S. Penitentiary at Beaumont has also had really terrible conditions in the wake of hurricanes. So this is a chronic issue for the system that often really doesn’t come through in news reports, because you have to talk directly to people to hear about them. And, in this case, the Florida Department of Corrections, said that DaRon Jones was wrong, and there wasn’t water in his cell. 

So I mean, we pretty consistently got these responses that said: Of course we’re planning and preparing for disasters! Of course the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has emergency operations plans and evacuation plans at every institution. But for safety and security reasons, we can’t provide you any details at all.

AH: So there are some things like in the data that we can’t know. The quality of the facility is a very important thing, especially with stuff like flooding. We can tell, in the general area, is it in a floodplain, is it going to be facing some flood risks, but that doesn’t tell you if the facility, the infrastructure of the facility, is able to deal with it. And in some cases, there are facilities that we know have flooded but show a low flood risk. And this is because of how the facility is built, or the deteriorating infrastructure that makes up the facility. So those prisoners are still facing risks from things like flooding, but the data just can’t show it.

AG: Alleen, can you walk us through a little bit more of the sort of historical, policy angle on why some of these facilities are, at this moment, so at risk from these climate disasters?

AB: A lot of these prisons were built as the War on Drugs ramped up in the 80s and 90s; 20, 30, 40 years have gone by since then. And, in a lot of cases, the facilities have been left to slowly fall apart. So basically, the climate crisis is deepening, just as these aging facilities are perhaps reaching the end of what their life should be. 

It’s not just that the climate crisis is deepening, it’s that there’s this kind of inherent problem with the incarceration system where the resources that might be required to make them have some level of environmental comfort and safety are just not being provided. So these storms, and wildfires, and incidents of extreme heat are happening on top of deteriorating facilities.

I mean, the climate crisis is going to get much worse in the years and decades ahead. We were especially able to see that with our heat data. This was from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and they were looking at the number of days annually at different heat index thresholds, they not only did that historically, but they also looked forward toward the end of the century. So they could basically tell us what the heat might look like under various greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Comparing historical data with these projections, you can really get a sense of the deepening climate crisis. 

Historically, there were 2,326 jails, prisons, and detention centers located in counties with more than 50 days annually above 90 degrees. By 2100, there are 2000 more, so that goes up to 4,362.

Historically, there were no facilities in counties with more than 50 days annually above 105 degrees. By 2100, there’s close to 700 facilities at that level. So when it comes to heat, for sure, the crisis is becoming much more severe. And states that are really accustomed to seeing a lot of heat are going to see prolonged periods of heat. So the Midwest might look more like Texas. 

And heat is kind of driving all these other issues: Wildfires are getting worse everywhere. We see in California especially, bigger and more intense fires. But they’re becoming more severe across the U.S., and that will impact the most vulnerable people the most. 

So this is all going to become even more unbearable.

AG: You dealt a little with how policymakers and government officials are responding to this intersection of climate risks and mass incarceration. Are people doing anything to address this?

AB: You know, we have seen some moves in especially impacted local places. 

So in Texas, although legislation has not advanced, the government has been forced to start to make some moves toward heat protection because of these lawsuits, because people have actually died. So now they say that they have these automated heat sensitivity scores that identify people with health-related illnesses who should get air conditioned beds. Naturally, when we ask for the details of how those scores are calculated, they tell us, basically, not much. Not even the people organizing around this stuff really knows how they decide who should get an air-conditioned bed and whose health problem isn’t serious enough to merit that. So it probably depends a lot on how involved your family can be. 

In Florida, we see a growing contingent of Republicans joining Democrats who have been working on this longer, starting to propose some solutions related to conditions, which I guess would include heat and flooding there, especially. So there are some people that are calling for sentencing reform, which is more in that vein of getting people out of the situation. And Florida’s particularly bad when it comes to sentencing rules. But then you also have the Florida Senate president kind of focusing on building new climate-friendly prisons. In this year’s budget, the Senate budget, there is more than a billion dollars to build two new prisons. So that’s one way this can go. 

Nationally, Joe Biden advanced a couple executive orders that basically require federal agencies to develop climate-adaptation plans; that includes the Justice Department, under which the Bureau of Prisons falls, and that’s the agency that kind of manages federal prisons. So a report that they put out says that the department is starting to re-evaluate facilities for climate risks. It’s a process that was started under Obama. And then finally, I would mention, for a couple years now, Senator Tammy Duckworth has introduced a bill that would require the Bureau of Prison to submit these annual damage reports describing how federal prisons and people incarcerated there have done during major disasters that have struck. And, actually, I think this would be pretty valuable, because, really, a lot of people do not feel like they can speak publicly about the things that go on in these prisons, because speaking out often results directly in retaliation, they say. 

So I tried to talk to a lot of families and incarcerated people. Of course, there were some people willing to go on record, but there were a lot of people who did not want to go on record. And I think a lot of times when this stuff happens, just nobody knows about it. So it would be useful to have that kind of report. The bill also would encourage corrections officials to consider home-confinement or early release when disasters are hitting carceral facilities. So it kind of has that angle of more systemic reform, as well as this transparency element. But that has been introduced for two years, two legislative sessions, and has not moved forward. So we’ll see what happens.

AG: I think the reporting demonstrated that some of these solutions can take a long time to bring about, right? We’re talking about the federal government doing reports to study something. And that’s a long process, and then there’s implementing whatever recommendations arise from that, and that could be hit or miss and will probably take a long time in its own right. You’ve got these bills that are having trouble getting through both state and federal legislatures. And even in the example of Florida, you’ve got efforts to either put money into revamping facilities, which are infrastructure projects that are not gonna happen immediately, or things like sentencing reforms that also are going to probably have lagging effects. 

One thing you kept arriving at in your conversations with incarcerated people and their advocates, the people who are actually dealing with those who live directly with these conditions, was an idea that was once thought of being extremely radical but it’s starting to gain more and more purchase as a practical solution to problems like these. Like, the climate crisis is getting worse, but you kept finding that there was one solution that really addresses the climate risks, particularly to incarcerated people. And so can you just tell us a little bit about that?

AB: Yeah. So one solution that came up over and over again, from family members, from people who are in these facilities, from people organizing around these issues, is the idea that maybe the only truly meaningful climate-mitigation strategy for prisons is to shut down facilities and let people out. 

People told me — time and again — that, yeah, these were serious problems, but it wasn’t even half of it. We think of the climate crisis as something that amplifies pre-existing threats and vulnerabilities and people in these places are already dealing with really horrible conditions. So if anything, this climate emergency just amplifies the total crisis that is the U.S.’s system of mass incarceration. 

The system that we have now puts people in a situation where they’re also totally dependent on the state for medical care, for food, for waking and sleeping. They’re just totally dependent on the state. And now with the climate crisis asking questions of our government systems or putting pressure on all of our systems to consider how we care for people in communities that are facing really horrific catastrophes, I think there’s a real need for the state to reconsider how it’s supporting the people that it has forced into its care. Right now the situation is really dangerous, and some changes are going to have to be made for conditions to be something that we can stand behind as a nation.

AH: I think there’s this concept in the United States, at least, not subjecting people to cruel and unusual punishment. And I can’t really think of something that’s more cruel and unusual than having prisoners trapped in cells for hundreds of days out of the year that are over 90 degrees, or having to deal with water flooding into their cells, or having to deal with a wildfire right outside of the prison facility. These are things that I don’t think people in charge are really treating seriously and taking seriously and it’s just another reason why we should really be looking beyond how we might fix some of these facilities so they deal with these things better, and really looking into how we are closing down its facilities and moving people out of these facilities.

[Quick, tentatively upbeat music.]

[Outro theme music.]

AG: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

Special thanks to Stuart Harmon, Armando Aparicio, April Kirby, and The Intercept’s video producer Travis Mannon for additional audio recordings.

And I’m Ali Gharib.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted so you can hear it every time a new episode comes out. And definitely do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find us. If you want to give us feedback, email us at T

Thanks so much. 

Until next time.

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