East Coast Wildfires Put Incarcerated People on Frontlines of Climate Crisis

This story was originally published by The Appeal.

As smoke from wildfires in Canada turned the skies orange, people in the Mid-Atlantic headed inside. They shut their windows, dusting off air purifiers, masks, and inhalers for those with respiratory illnesses like asthma. However, people locked inside dozens of jails and prisons across the region had little choice over how to avoid the bad air.

“The people who will feel the impacts of the climate crisis most acutely are those who are behind bars and unable to take the precautions and avail themselves of protections that people at liberty will be able to do,” said Rosa Cohen-Cruz, immigration policy director for the New York-based public defense non-profit Bronx Defenders.

Air quality indexes peaked at “hazardous” levels at more than 140 carceral facilities on Wednesday, including jails, prisons, halfway houses, treatment facilities, immigration detention sites, and juvenile detention centers across New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, according to an analysis by The Appeal. At least two immigration detention facilities, along with every local jail in New York City’s five boroughs, experienced hazardous air. At more than 20 facilities, peak air quality readings were literally off the chart, peaking above 500.

Corrections departments attempted to protect prisoners with various approaches—some robust and others flimsy—from flipping on newly installed air purification systems to handing out cloth masks.

The EPA’s Air Quality Index uses a scale from 0 to 500 to measure the level of pollutants in the air. Of particular concern are tiny particles of material with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, known as PM2.5, which can lodge deep in the lungs. When AQI levels rise above 300, they’re considered “hazardous” even to people with no health issues, and the agency recommends staying inside a room with closed windows where an air purifier and an air conditioner are running and avoiding physical activity. Exposure to hazardous air can cause heart attacks, strokes, and asthma attacks and lead to longer-term problems like chronic bronchitis and premature aging of the lungs.

Image Source: TheAppeal.org

People inside prisons engulfed by hazardous wildfire smoke face distinct risks. Aging prison facilities often have little or no air conditioning, poorly controlled ventilation, broken windows, and inconsistently enforced safety protocols. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly 17 percent of people in state prisons across the U.S. have been diagnosed with asthma, compared to 8 percent of the general population. Recent research has found that people with asthma have significantly less access to medications in prison.

The flames themselves present a risk to some facilities too. While most of this week’s wildfire smoke came from Canada, another fire blazed in New Jersey. According to an analysis of federal risk data published last year by The Intercept, four carceral facilities in New Jersey face severe to extreme wildfire risk, meaning they are more likely to experience intense wildfires than 90 percent of all other carceral facilities in the United States.

Prisoners and their advocates in California have been grappling with the reality of wildfire smoke since at least 2017, when it became apparent that the climate crisis was driving a new era of intensified fires on the West Coast. Scientists’ predictions that the wildfire crisis would not spare those in the East came true this week. For people in jails and prisons, it means a new set of health and safety problems.

At New York’s Orange County Correctional Facility (OCCF), where the area air quality index peaked at 245—a purple-colored “very unhealthy” level on the EPA’s scale—people in immigration detention told Bronx Defenders staff that they had not received masks. Officials at the county-run facility assured the non-profit that masks were available, and a spokesperson told The Appeal that staff posted signage warning prisoners of the air quality alert, so they could decide whether to use optional time outdoors. Nonetheless, Cohen-Cruz doubted those inside were protected. “For years now advocates and people inside OCCF have been outspoken about medical neglect and lack of basic care for the people inside,” she wrote in an email to The Appeal.

Auburn Correctional Facility, the oldest prison in New York, built in 1816, saw some of the poorest air quality in the region, hitting 422, near the upper edge of the EPA’s maroon-colored “hazardous” level.

In 2019, inspectors from the Correctional Association of New York, an independent oversight group, discovered that two units at Auburn had broken windows, leaving prisoners exposed to cold winter air and bird droppings in their living quarters. The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) assured inspectors that they would repair the windows by 2021. However, given the impact of the pandemic, the organization’s director, Jennifer Scaife, says she was unsure whether the agency followed through.

DOCCS did not answer a question about the windows, but they told The Appeal that prisoners would have access to cloth masks, which only provide minimal protection against wildfire smoke, upon request. The agency warned prisoners of the poor air quality in a memo. “People who are especially sensitive to the effects of elevated levels of pollutants including the very young and those with pre-existing respiratory problems such as heart disease or asthma should avoid spending time outdoors, if possible,” the memo said.

It was a hollow message, considering how little control prisoners have over their activities.

Asked about its air quality protocols, the New York City Department of Corrections told The Appeal that all prisoners who requested a mask would receive one. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections discontinued outdoor recreation and “prolonged outdoor work assignments,” according to a department spokesperson.

A spokesperson for the Delaware Department of Correction indicated that infrastructural investments had helped prepare them for the smoke. The Howard R. Young and Baylor Women’s correctional Institutions, which experienced some of the worst air quality in the state, were each “fully climate-controlled” with “HVAC systems that filter recirculated air” and air purification systems installed during the Covid-19 pandemic, communications director Ashley Dawson wrote in response to emailed questions from The Appeal. Outdoor recreation for youth incarcerated at the New Castle County Detention Center, also in Delaware, was moved inside.

New Jersey corrections officials encouraged people participating in outdoor activities to take breaks, urged those with health sensitivities to stay inside, and canceled outdoor work details on June 8, according to a spokesperson. People with asthma were allowed to carry their inhalers, which is not standard given the perceived security risk.

Organizers in New Jersey want to see more. On Friday, 14 religious and social justice organization leaders delivered a letter urging the state Department of Corrections and other agencies that run carceral facilities to institute a new set of policies whenever the AQI reaches the orange level deemed “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” The letter called on prison officials to distribute N-95 masks, house people in areas with air filtration and air conditioning, eliminate mandatory outdoor activity, and monitor everyone with health sensitivities.

Instituting the advocates’ recommendations would require the state to fund new jail and prison infrastructure. According to a 2022 New Jersey Corrections Ombudsperson report, the state housed roughly 3,500 prisoners in units without air-conditioning. During summer heat waves, temperatures in those units sometimes exceed 90 degrees.

Reflecting on the deepening climate crisis,  Scaife said, “This is just going to compound the need for the government to look at investments in keeping people healthy and safe while incarcerated—and also to reconsider whether incarceration in state facilities that can’t meet the complex needs of people with chronic conditions is necessary.”

In fact, hazardous air also hit seven county-run facilities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that ended immigration detention contracts under pressure from community members in recent years. Cohen-Cruz put it bluntly. “Decarceration is a critical climate justice issue.”

The Appeal is a nonprofit newsroom that exposes how the U.S. criminal legal system fails to keep people safe and perpetuates harm.

Alleen Brown is an independent investigative journalist. Newsletter: alleenbrown.ghost.io