By Paul Wright
As summer winds down our cover story reports on the impact of extreme heat on Texas prisons; in the next few months we will report more on what the heat did this summer in American prisons. For decades now Prison Legal News has been the only publication highlighting and reporting on the intersection between the environment and mass incarceration as part of our Prison Ecology project. As this issue of PLN is in production news reports show Hurricane Hilary bearing down on the Southwest US with projections of flooding and massive rainfall. Those same reports are silent about government plans to evacuate or protect prisoners or what steps will be taken to minimize the impact on prisoners.
I have previously noted the cascading effect multiple bad policy decisions have had: first lock up more people and a higher percentage of a nation’s population than has ever been done in human history; then build hundreds of prisons in remote, rural areas far from population centers to serve as something of a half assed jobs program for poor, rural white communities; make sure a lot of these prisons are not just in the middle of nowhere but also on abandoned mines, toxic waste dumps, flood plains, seismic zones, deforested woodlands, sensitive environmental areas, etc. Then act really surprised when it is difficult to staff the prisons because no one with anything going for them wants to live in the middle of nowhere and then realize that prisons collapsing as mines settle, jails exploding as methane leaks into them, elevated cancer rates from ash fields and uranium tailings, flooding, and wild fires means there is a reason not to build expensive buildings in these areas. And of course, none of this is insured because who would insure such bad building decisions?
In the states of the former confederacy, like Texas, Florida, etc. these policy decisions are further compounded by decisions to inflict pain and suffering on prisoners by deciding not to air condition the prisons. In addition to increasing the misery and the death rate for the prisoners, it also likely compounds the difficulty of hiring guards to work in the prisons, it also increases the wear on buildings and makes their usable life spans much shorter. In many states, prisons are drawing from the same job applicant pool as low wage employers like Walmart. But at least Walmart is air conditioned.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, we have almost two decades of experience with catastrophic weather events on prison and jail populations yet the governmental response tends to be the same: lock everything down and hope for the best. That is the universal response whether the state is Oregon, California, New York, Florida, Texas or others. One observation after 33 years of reporting on prisons and jails is that prison and jail officials do not seem to be very good at doing anything besides locking people in cages and keeping them there. They do poorly with medical care, education, rehabilitation, management, etc. So expecting them to do any better with disaster management and planning is likely a big stretch as well and not a big surprise that they do not excel at it.
It is still early in the presidential election season and the Republican primary sees Florida Governor Ron DeSantis vying for votes by attempting to be the most fascistic of the Republican candidates. As this issue of PLN goes to press Florida is preparing to execute its 6th prisoner so far in 2023. As we saw with President Trump’s massacre of federal death row prisoners in 2020, and Arkansas death row prisoners in 1992 when Bill Clinton was running for president, it is not good to be on death row when politicians are running for office or reelection and killing prisoners is viewed as a great vote getting strategy.
DeSantis has taken some criticism for saying that “slavery was a good thing” because the Florida education department now mandates that students be taught “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” DeSantis has doubled down on this in his campaign and while some media elements are critical, what is amazingly hypocritical is that when government and prison officials say the same thing about prison slavery and enslaving prisoners and paying them little or nothing for their forced labor (and Florida prisoners have no legal means of earning money unless paid nominal slave wages by the PRIDE prison industries boondoggle) the media pretty much nods along in acceptance. While no one, except apparently Desantis and his flunkies, thinks of chattel slavery as a jobs program, plenty seem to think of prison slavery as just that.
Slavers have always tried to have a narrative about how great slavery is for the enslaved. Little has changed in the past 500 years. What is more interesting is how little attention Desantis’s record as a prosecutor at the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp in Cuba as a Navy lawyer has garnered. The torture and abuse of prisoners there is well documented. So what role did he play in it? Except for the whistleblowers exposing torture like Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Julian Assange, who have gone to prison; all the actual torturers and their commanders have had long and lucrative public careers.
Enjoy this issue of PLN and please encourage others to subscribe.
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login