HELP US END MASS INCARCERATIONThe Prison Policy Initiative uses research, advocacy, and organizing to dismantle mass incarceration. We’ve been in this movement for 20 years, thanks to individual donors like you.
We are excited to introduce our new Policy and Advocacy Associate, Emmett Sanders! In his new role, Emmett will assist the Advocacy Department in providing technical assistance and added capacity to advocates and organizers engaging in criminal legal reform efforts at the state and local levels.
Emmett is a critically impacted researcher, writer, and advocate who holds a B.A. in English and a Master of Public Affairs from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Prior to joining the Prison Policy Initiative, Emmett was the Project Researcher and Organizer on MediaJustice’s Challenging E-Carceration and Unshackling Freedom campaigns where he became an expert on electronic monitoring. He worked previously as the Justice and Reentry Advocate at Cunningham Township Supervisor’s Office in Urbana, Illinois. He has been engaged in advocacy work with the Illinois Coalition to Challenge Electronic Monitoring as well as the Urbana Fair Housing Coalition.
Without consistent access to relief or safer environments, incarcerated people are punished with deadly heat, increased biological threats, and flimsy emergency protocols. We explain new epidemiological evidence confirming that heat and death are linked in prisons nationwide, and explain why the climate-change-induced plight of people in prisons deserves swift action.
Heatwaves and extreme weather events are now commonplace. States across the South and Southwest are experiencing record high temperatures (during the day and at night, which is a big deal). Meanwhile, the Northeast has been drenched in more frequent, torrential rainfall and flash flooding. Prisons and jails nationwide aren’t insulated from these events, yet we rarely see how bad the conditions are for the millions of people locked within them.
In this briefing, we present new findings from a nationwide, epidemiological study showing a strong relationship between extreme heat and deaths in prisons — especially in the Northeast. We also explain why extreme heat isn’t an isolated danger — it’s wrapped up in other hazards like pests and diseases guaranteed to make prison life miserable, if not fatal.
New research confirms what we already know: Extreme heat and deaths are linked in prisons nationwide
A group of researchers, led by epidemiologist Julianne Skarha, offer new evidence that the heat we’ve been experiencing is particularly deadly for incarcerated people across the U.S.2 Using two datasets — annual deaths in state prisons from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and hourly temperature data from the North American Land Data Assimilation System — the researchers looked at unusually high temperatures occurring in the summer months at the geographic location of prisons.3
Using established public health research methods, the study’s authors were able to look at exposure to a “risk” or an event — in this case, hotter-than-average days or multi-day heatwaves,4 and observe an acute outcome — deaths in state prisons (categorized as suicide, heart disease, or death from any cause). They examined deaths that occurred up to three days after each heat event.
As expected, unusual heat was associated with higher overall mortality. The researchers found for every 10 degree increase above the prison location’s mean summer temperature, nearly 5% of deaths (from all causes) occurring there could be attributed to the heat. Even the days following a hotter-than-average day were associated with deaths, although the risk of heat-related death declined, suggesting that mitigating heat right away is crucial.
Further, an extreme heat day (one that falls within the hottest 10% of days for a particular location) was associated with a 3.5% increase in deaths. These extremely hot days had a delayed effect on suicides, which increased by 23% over the three days that followed. As if prison environments weren’t already damaging enough to mental health, the oppressive heat and a prison’s failure to provide relief from it can drive someone into unbearable distress.
Two- and three-day heatwaves (defined as consecutive days of extreme heat) were even more dangerous, increasing deaths by 5.5% and 7.4%, respectively. There were similar trends with deaths from suicide and heart disease, but they were not statistically significant.
The study’s authors also found that the impact of heat on mortality was highest in the Northeast region, 5 which tracks with evidence suggesting heat-acclimated populations might fare better in a hotter world. So even though states like Texas are rightfully scorned for failing to provide livable environments for people in prisons,6 more temperate states (like those in New England) aren’t off the hook either.
The results, as terrible as they are, likely underestimate the deadly effect of heat in prisons without A/C, as air conditioning data were not available for this analysis. The researchers also noted that they didn’t have data on the type of housing individuals were held in before they died, such as a solitary confinement cell.7 Despite these limitations, Skarha et al. offer the first nationwide, peer-reviewed publication showing that prisons, which are deadly places already, are heating people to death.
Prisons fail to provide desperately needed relief from heat and other emergencies
As we mentioned in our 2019 investigation, air conditioning is not a universal feature of prison buildings in famously hot states, even though it is nearly ubiquitous in homes across the South.8 Short of prison A/C — which states will spend more money fighting through lawsuits than they would installing — incarcerated people are seldom provided other forms of temporary relief. A survey conducted in California prisons by the Ella Baker Center found that most respondents didn’t have access to more water or showers on particularly hot days. Meanwhile, 62% of respondents reported experiencing heat exhaustion and 41% reported heat cramps due to extreme heat and/or nearby wildfires. Two-thirds (67%) of respondents said they were worried or extremely worried about their physical safety in the case of extreme heat at their prison.
And even though judges in multiple states have ruled that subjecting incarcerated people to extreme temperatures is unconstitutional, they haven’t mandated any relief measures. Public opposition to providing “comfortable” carceral spaces has further compelled prison officials to do nothing about this life-or-death issue.
It would take more than a week’s worth of earnings at a federal prison in Texas for most people to afford this electric fan.
Even the mild relief of a fan or a towel can be hard to come by in prisons. These items might be available, though unaffordable, through a commissary: In one federal prison, where most people make less than $0.50 per hour, a fan costs $30.70. And in Oregon, where a heat wave brought 100-plus degree days in 2021, one prison offered special “cooling” towels for $18 — a nearly 100% markup.
Aside from placing the burden on incarcerated people to gather these threadbare comforts, prisons are largely unprepared to respond to facility-wide emergencies and disasters. There is no national mandate for correctional facilities to form emergency preparedness plans, to have evacuation drills, or to train staff on emergency protocols.9 The same Ella Baker Center survey found that the vast majority of incarcerated respondents did not know of any plan describing their prison’s emergency procedures for extreme heat (72% were not aware), extreme cold (88%), wildfires (88%), or flooding (92%).
Extreme weather is intertwined with other biological and social threats, leaving people in prisons highly vulnerable
As we and others have been saying for years, increasing heat is especially dangerous for people in prisons. But the heat itself is not the only issue. What other aspects of the prison environment will worsen as the climate changes?
Mounting heat and humidity will lead to changes in pest populations nationwide, and incarcerated people will only fare as well as state mitigation strategies will allow. In Utah, for example, where a brand new prison recently opened near the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake, mosquito populations are thriving in ideal conditions. Despite great concern about this decidedly bad location, the mosquito problem at Utah State Prison has gotten so bad that prison officials have been scrambling for solutions.10
Utah prison officials’ ill-conceived responses include selling insect repellent in the prison commissary (instead of providing it for free) and training staff to use pesticides to kill mosquitoes, leading to unintended consequences for other parts of the sensitive ecosystem. Such consequences are also borne by the thousands of people who live and work in the area.11 Seeing as biological diversity is our best defense against climate change, it’s devastating to see how the new Utah prison is proceeding to destroy such an important, fragile place, while putting its incarcerated population at risk of mosquito-borne illness, flooding, and contaminated water.
The number of infectious disease outbreaks (by growing populations of mosquitoes and ticks, for example) has risen along with average global temperatures. There is some emerging evidence, for example, that climate change is contributing to a rise in Valley Fever, a deadly fungal infection that has plagued people imprisoned in the Southwest for years. Based on decades of evidence, prisons and jails aren’t likely to be prepared for the increasing threats of bacterial, viral, and fungal infections.
As the weather warms, prisons will demonstrate the well-documented relationship between heat and violence. A July 2021 study found that unmitigated exposure to heat — even after accounting for dozens of other factors — increased violent events in Mississippi prisons. Aside from the physical harm of violence and the mental health damage caused by living in a violent place, the study’s authors predict that violence under “thermal stress” may perpetuate mass incarceration: People pushed to act violently in prison are more likely to have disciplinary infractions that delay their release, and the overall harsher prison conditions caused by heat may increase the odds of recidivism once released.12 Clearly, lawmakers should consider the immense social and financial benefits that a universal necessity like air conditioning could have in their state prisons.
Environmental emergencies are the norm in a climate-changed world. While we focused on heat-related dangers in this briefing, the kinds of failures we described are present in how prisons deal with other weather events as well: Floods, fires, hurricanes, cold snaps, and blizzards are all particularly threatening to the lives of incarcerated people. Deteriorating infrastructure and harmful policies around charging fees for medical care, privatizing care and commissary items, and failed emergency protocols are intensified by an increasingly volatile environment.
Even though incarcerated people regularly organize for their own survival needs, they face an especially daunting challenge building climate resilience. The deck that is stacked against them grows as our surroundings become more inhospitable. And the impacts of climate change on incarcerated populations will ripple out to surrounding communities, making this an issue we should all care about. Places of confinement and the people inside them must be part of any effort to reduce the harms of climate change. The status quo is nothing short of an overlooked crisis.
Many people in prison are especially susceptible to heat-related illness, as they’re more likely than the general population to have certain health conditions or take medications that make them especially vulnerable to the heat. ↩
This study follows one published in late 2022 (for which Skarha is also the lead author) focused on Texas prisons, which are notorious for sweltering conditions. The 2022 study leverages the fact that air conditioning is provided in some Texas prisons, but not all. Those researchers found that some deaths could be attributed to heat in those prisons without A/C, whereas no deaths could be attributed to heat in climate-controlled prisons. ↩
The researchers note they were not able to complete their analysis for Alaska and Hawaii due to a lack of temperature data. ↩
The study’s authors used the mean summer temperature at each location for their analysis, and determined extreme heat events using a maximum temperature greater than the 90th percentile for the respective location over 1, 2, or 3 consecutive days. Under this definition of extreme heat, the cutoff point for some prison locations was quite mild, so the authors chose to exclude prisons in locations where the
90th percentile was less than or equal to 77*F. ↩
The researchers defined the Northeast region as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. ↩
However, the researchers did exclude deaths that occurred in 12 prison facilities across the U.S. that are specifically designated for medical treatment and operate similar to a hospital. ↩
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2020 Residential Energy Consumption Survey, 94% of homes in the South (referring to Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma plus Washington, D.C.) used air conditioning. ↩
According to Melissa Savilonis, who wrote a 2013 doctoral thesis on emergency planning in correctional facilities, prisons are entirely left out of emergency preparedness activities, even though the federal government “places emergency management at the forefront of government priorities.” The Stafford Act, which is the major federal law authorizing federal dollars for emergency disaster relief to state and local governments, and the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which was intended to address the failure to adequately respond to communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina, are both silent on incarcerated populations and/or correctional facilities. The Stafford Act does mention pets as a vulnerable population, however. ↩
Overall, climate change is predicted to have a negative impact on biological diversity — in other words, many insects and other species will die off. But this doesn’t mean living blissfully free from bug bites: We’ll be losing insects that are critical to healthy, functioning ecosystems, as well as our global food supply. Yet some insect populations, like mosquitoes and ticks, are predicted to grow alongside changing conditions and decreasing populations of natural predators. ↩
Unfortunately, harmful chemical agents are overused and weaponized in the confined spaces of prisons and jails. Earlier this year, several people sued an ICE detention facility in Adelanto, Calif., claiming staff indiscriminately sprayed HDQ Neutral, a corrosive cleaning chemical, throughout the building. Ingesting the chemical led to rashes, respiratory issues, and headaches. And correctional officers regularly use chemicals like tear gas and pepper spray to incapacitate people, instead of using de-escalation techniques or trained mental health professionals.
At the same time, corrections officials are quick to divert attention away from these harmful activities and claim that incarcerated people are the ones misusing chemicals. In one case, a Florida sheriff claimed the people in his jail were using roach spray to get high. Claims like this are often overblown and weaponized to restrict services, programs, and privileges, given the reality that actual drugs are fairly easy to obtain while behind bars (through staff, often). ↩
Report shows every community is harmed by mass incarceration
July 13, 2023
Today the Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), the Redistricting Data Hub, and the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report, Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in Louisiana, that provides an in-depth look at where people incarcerated by the state’s Department of Public Safety & Corrections (DPS&C) come from. The report also provides nineteen detailed data tables — including neighborhood-specific data for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and Jefferson Parish — that serve as a foundation for advocates, organizers, policymakers, data journalists, academics, and others to analyze how incarceration relates to other factors of community well-being.
The report shows:
Every single parish — and every state legislative district — is missing a portion of its population to incarceration in state prison.
While the state’s largest cities have the most people incarcerated, many of the state’s smallest communities have the highest imprisonment rates, including Bogalusa, which has an imprisonment rate of 1,661 per 100,000 residents in the custody of DPS&C. For comparison, Louisiana has an imprisonment rate of 451 per 100,000 residents.
There are dramatic differences in incarceration rates within communities. For example, in New Orleans, one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation, residents of B.W. Cooper are 47 times more likely to be imprisoned than residents of the neighboring Lakeview neighborhood.
Data tables included in the report provide residence information for people incarcerated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections in 2022, offering the clearest look ever at which communities are most impacted by mass incarceration. They break down the number of people locked up by parish, city, town, zip code, legislative district, census tract, and other areas.
The data show that the parishes with the highest state prison incarceration rates are Washington (901 per 100,000 residents), Franklin (788 per 100,000 residents), and Caddo (753 per 100,000 residents). For comparison, Ascension Parish has the lowest prison incarceration rate, at 195 people in state prison per 100,000 residents, four times lower than Washington Parish.
“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” said Emily Widra, Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “Our report is just the beginning. We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”
The report cites studies that show that incarceration rates correlate with a variety of negative outcomes, including higher rates of asthma, depression, lower standardized test scores, reduced life expectancy, and more. The data included in this report gives researchers the tools they need to understand better how these correlations play out in Louisiana.
“Louisiana has led the way on the use of incarceration as the solution to complicated social struggles, and this approach has specifically targeted Black communities since the beginning,” says Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of VOTE. “This data illustrates the scope of mass incarceration, as every town and city feels the pain. Lawmakers have consistently chosen to fund the police and prison industry rather than invest in communities, as they routinely file more bills on criminal justice than any other issue area. We hope that continued education can put a stop to this trend that has spanned over two centuries.”
Ending or limiting the use of monetary bail has become an increasingly common criminal legal system reform across the country. Reformers and researchers have long supported such measures, but opponents — including district attorneys, police departments, and the commercial bail industry — often claim pretrial reform puts community safety at risk. We put these claims to the test.
We found four states, as well as nine cities and counties, where data exist measuring public safety from before and after the adoption of pretrial reforms. All of these jurisdictions saw decreases or negligible increases in crime or re-arrest rates after implementing reforms.
Below, we describe the reforms implemented in each of these 13 jurisdictions, the effect these reforms had on the pretrial population (if available), and the effect on public safety. We find that whether the jurisdictions eliminated money bail for some or all charges, began using a validated risk assessment tool, introduced services to remind people of upcoming court dates, or implemented some combination of these policies, the results were the same: Releasing people pretrial did not negatively impact public safety.
About 83% of people held by jails are legally innocent and awaiting trial, often because they are too poor to make bail. The overall jail population hasn’t always been so heavily dominated by pretrial detainees. As we’ve previously reported, increased arrests and a growing reliance on money bail over the last three decades have contributed to a significant rise in pretrial detention. Any time spent in pretrial detention can increase rates of failure to appear in court and rates of re-arrest. And research shows that just a few days of pretrial detention can have detrimental effects on an individual’s employment, housing, financial stability, and family wellbeing.
In this analysis, public safety is measured through the narrow lens of crime rates. But pretrial reforms promote other types of safety that are more difficult to measure, such as the safety of individuals who can remain at home instead of in a jail cell, children who are able to stay in their parents’ care, and community members who are spared the health risks that come from jail churn. (Furthermore, research has found that pretrial detention actually increases the odds of a person being re-arrested in the future, which is clearly counterproductive from a crime rate-defined public safety standpoint.) Pretrial reform also alleviates jail overcrowding, and is a superior alternative to new jail construction for counties with overcrowded jails.
States and counties can and should build on these pretrial reforms. More progress can be made to continue reducing the number of people held pretrial, and address concerns such as racial bias inherent in pretrial risk assessment tools.1 But the data is clear: When it comes to public safety, these reforms are a step in the right direction.
State level reforms
Reform: In 2017, the New Jersey legislature passed a law implementing a risk-informed approach to pretrial release and virtually eliminated the use of cash bail.
Impact: The pretrial population decreased 50% from 2015 to 2018. Unfortunately, the pretrial population rebounded during the COVID-19 pandemic; rates of pretrial incarceration in 2023 are only 25% below what they were in 2015.
Public safety: Rates of violent crime fell between 2016-2018; homicides fell by 32% while rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, and thefts all fell by double-digit percentages. The percentage of people arrested for new crimes while awaiting trial changed by only 1 percentage point before and after reform, from 12.7% to 13.7%. In 2020, only 0.6% of people were re-arrested for a serious violent offense while awaiting trial.2
Reform: A 2016 voter-approved constitutional amendment prohibits judges from imposing bail amounts that people cannot afford, enables the release of many low-risk defendants without bond, and allows defendants to request relief from the requirement to post bond. (The Eighth Amendment already forbids excessive bail, but in practice, bail is regularly set at unaffordable levels in courts around the country.)
The impact of this reform on the jail population isn’t known.
Public safety: State-wide crime rates declined after the reforms took effect in mid-2017. Furthermore, the safety rate, or the number of people released pretrial who are not charged with committing a new crime, increased from 74% to 83.2% after the reforms took effect.
Reform:Kentucky began using a validated pretrial risk assessment tool in 2013. In 2017, the state began allowing release of low-risk defendants without seeing a judge. In addition, a statewide pretrial services agency is required to make a release recommendation within 24 hours of arrest, and reminds people of upcoming court dates via automated texts and calls.
Impact: Judges have released more people on their own recognizance since 2013.
Public safety: The new criminal activity rate, which measures the rate at which people commit new crimes while awaiting trial, remained consistent; there was a 1-2 percentage point increase in re-arrests for all charges, but no increase in the rate of new arrests for violent felonies.
Reform: A law that went into effect on January 1, 2020 eliminated the use of money bail and pretrial detention for most misdemeanors and many nonviolent felony cases. Since 2020, there have been three waves of rollbacks to the law, in June 2020, May 2022, and June 2023, which have narrowed the impact of these reforms.
Impact: The pretrial population in New York City declined 40% from April 2019 to March 2020, directly after reforms were passed. Between January 2020 and January 2022, total jail populations fluctuated, but ultimately fell about 7%.
Public safety: The NYPD asserted in March 2020 that the original bail reform measures were a “significant reason” for increased arrests in six crime categories from February 2019 to February 2020. However, researchers from Human Rights Watch argued that the reforms had not been in place long enough to pinpoint them as the driving force behind a rise in crime. Unfortunately, misleading narratives about crime have continued to dominate news coverage about New York’s bail reform.
However, a plethora of studies have shown that bail reform has had either a neutral or positive impact on public safety. They show:
People impacted by bail reform were no more likely to be re-arrested after reforms than they were before.
Bail reform has reduced re-arrest rates: prior to reforms, 50% of people were re-arrested in the two years following arraignment in court; after reform, 44% were re-arrested.
Between 2019 and 2020, violent crime rates rose around the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as New York began to implement its bail reforms. However, New York State’s violent crime rate rose by just 1% during this time, while violent crime nationally rose by 5%.
County and city level reforms
San Francisco, Calif.
Reform: Following collaboration between various judicial and public safety departments, the city has used a validated risk assessment tool since 2016. The San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project also helps by offering alternatives to fines, dismissals of charges for “first time misdemeanor offenders” who complete treatment plans, and other forms of support for people navigating the system. In 2020, then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced his office would no longer ask for cash bail. After Boudin was recalled in 2022, his successor, Brooke Jenkins, revised the policy to reinstate the practice of asking for cash bail in some circumstances.
Impact: The San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project reduced the jail population by 47%.
Public safety: Between 2019 and 2020, when cash bail was eliminated, San Francisco’s violent crime rate fell by over 15% while the national violent crime rate rose by 5%. The city’s new criminal activity rate, which measures the rate at which people commit new crimes while awaiting trial, is 10%. This puts it on par with Washington, D.C. which is often cited as a model of pretrial reform success.
Reform: The District’s Pretrial Services Agency has used a risk assessment tool since the agency was created by Congress in 1967, but their reforms go much further: Judges cannot set money bail that results in someone’s pretrial detention, there are limits to the amount of time people can spend in jail after their arrest, and the Pretrial Services Agency can connect people to employment, housing, and general social services resources.
Impact: Over 90% of arrestees are released without a financial bond.
Public safety: In FY 2022, 93% of people were not re-arrested when released pretrial; in FY 2019, 99% were not re-arrested for a violent crime.
Reform: In 2018, the District Attorney’s office stopped seeking money bail for some misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, which made up the majority of all cases.
Impact: Reforms led to an 11% increase in the number of people released on their own recognizance. Ninety percent of people charged with misdemeanors, and 32% of those charged with felonies, were released without having to post bail.
Public safety: Researchers found that the percentage of people re-arrested pretrial decreased slightly following reforms.
Santa Clara County, Calif.
Reform: Santa Clara courts began using a validated risk assessment in 2012, and their pretrial services agency sends court date reminders to those released pretrial. In addition, community organizations such as a churches partner with individuals to remind them of court dates, provide transportation, and offer other assistance.
Impact: The number of people released without cash bail increased 45% after the reforms.
Public safety: 99% of people released were not re-arrested.
Cook County, Ill.
Reform: As of 2017, as a result of a court rule, judges must consider what people can afford when setting bail amounts.
Impact: The pretrial population declined by about 16% between 2017 and 2022. The percentage of people released without cash bail has more than doubled, and the increase was most dramatic for Black people.
Public safety: In the year following the court rule, overall violent crime in Cook County dropped by more than 10%. There was no statistically significant change in the likelihood of re-arrest while awaiting trial or of re-arrest for a violent crime. Since 2017, 96.5% of people are not re-arrested for a violent crime while released pretrial.
Yakima County, Wash.
Reform:Yakima County began using a validated risk assessment tool in 2015, at the recommendation of local judicial and public safety stakeholders. The county also implemented a pretrial services program that offers services like helping people obtain mental health or drug treatment and sending automatic court date reminders.
Public safety: After reforms, the rate of re-arrest increased by only 2 percentage points, from 16% to 18%.
New Orleans, La.
Reform: A 2017 ordinance passed by the city council virtually eliminated money bail for people arrested on municipal offenses. Since then, the city has implemented a risk assessment tool and releases some low-risk arrestees without bail.
Impact: There was a 337% increase in the number of arrestees released without bail from 2009 to 2019 (1.9% to 8.3%).
Risk assessment tools base their results on existing criminal justice data, which in turn reflect years of biased policing and racial disparities. And ultimately, final decisions over detainment or release are made by people, who are subject to bias. Thus, while risk assessment tools give the impression of fairness, how fair they are in practice depends on the historical data they are based on, as well as the individual using the tools. ↩
It’s important to note that different jurisdictions have different definitions of what qualifies as a “violent” or “serious” crime, which may partially account for differences in re-arrest rates for “violent” crimes in different states. ↩