This summer, Illinois and regions around the United States have experienced sweltering heat. Temperatures in Illinois have reached the 90s and even 100s and are expected to spike again.
While fall may help to cool things off for the near future, we can expect extremely hot temperatures to be an issue every year. Human emissions of heat-trapping gasses have warmed the earth by about two degrees fahrenheit since 1750, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Panel expects temperatures to warm by another three degrees in the coming decades.
These hot temperatures are forcing people without adequate access to cooling resources to endure inhumane conditions; people who are incarcerated are among these marginalized populations bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.
There is a strong correlation between mortality rates and heat. Researchers have found “an association between increasing continuous temperature, extreme heat, heatwaves days and mortality, with marked increases for heart disease-related mortality and suicide.”
Climate change exacerbates pre-existing health conditions, and people who are incarcerated are at an increased risk of medical issues. They have even been found to age more rapidly than the general population and are diagnosed disproportionately with illnesses such as diabetes. In fact, fifty percent of people who are incarcerated have reported having a chronic medical condition.
The effects of extreme heat are most dangerous for people 65 and older. Ten percent of the people incarcerated in the United States are 55 or older, a percentage that is steadily increasing. As a result, more people will fall victim to the long-lasting consequences of climate change in prison. It is estimated that temperatures inside prisons that rose 10 degrees above average correlated with a 5.2% increase in deaths among people incarcerated in state and private prisons.
A 2016 survey found that about 43 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Many of these people are treated with psychotropic drugs, which can increase the risk of excessive body temperature. Because of this, people who are incarcerated are much more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. As mentioned above, increased temperatures are correlated with increased suicide rates in prisons. Between 2001 and 2019, researchers found that in the three days following an extremely hot day, suicide rates of people incarcerated increased by 22.8 percent.
Rising temperatures from climate change do not only negatively affect the health of people who are incarcerated, but also those who are employed in jails and prisons. While temperatures are rising, prisons throughout the United States are experiencing staffing shortages. Staffing shortages could affect the delivery of food and water, access to medical care, and safety protocols. There is also a clear connection between increasing temperatures and violence. One study found that daily temperatures exceeding 80 degrees fahrenheit have been associated with a 20 percent increase in violent interactions among people that are incarcerated. The same study found that heat exposure increased violent incidents in a Mississippi prison in 2021. Correctional officers and the people who are incarcerated are at risk, not only of acquiring heat-related illness, but of becoming subject to these spikes of violence.
By the end of the century, almost 75 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States will experience more than 50 days a year with a heat index of over 90 degrees. More than half of the prisons, jails, and detention centers in the United States will reach that level by 2100. Without adequate response, people incarcerated throughout the United States will continue to suffer and die as a result of climate change.