The Color of Climate

How the U.S. Prison System Contributes to Climate Change

New research links mass incarceration and increased carbon emissions

Drew Costley
Published in
4 min readJan 11, 2021

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Photo illustration: “The Color of Climate” text and photos of silver handcuffs, and heat station pipes behind barbed wire
Photo illustration, images: Yury Karamanenko, Denisfilm/iStock via Getty

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from Future Human exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

As historically large wildfires raged up and down the United States West Coast in 2020, people incarcerated in jails and prisons in California, Oregon, and Washington were strangled by dense smoke. Prisoners and activists pleaded with state law enforcement officials to release or evacuate prisoners from smoky areas.

After Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, prisoners in Texas were stranded without food and water in flooded jails and prisons, writing to the National Lawyers Guild about low water rations and filthy conditions. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, prisoners in New Orleans had no food, air conditioning, or ventilation.

It’s long been known that prisoners are at the forefront of ecological disasters, which are being exacerbated by the worsening climate crisis. Now, research in the sociology journal Social Currents suggests that the prisons and jails that cage them are also contributing to climate change. According to the research, which looked for correlations between carbon emissions from 1997 and 2016 and increases in populations at state, federal, and private prisons, every incarcerated person in the United States accounts for a 0.481% increase in carbon emissions. The study counted 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States.

“We’ve seen that prisoners and their living conditions are such that they are most heavily impacted by hurricanes.”

Lead author Julius Alexander McGee, PhD, of Portland State University, tells Future Human that he initially thought he might find some small association between mass incarceration and climate change, “but not much.” He and his co-authors point to the massive spending and consumption previously linked to the prison industrial complex as reasons for their hypothesis that it might contribute to environmental harm.

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Drew Costley
Future Human

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.