Growing a Coalition to Stop The Heat

Merging Movements to Bring Climate Justice, Abolish ICE and End Prison Slavery

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Larry McCollum was supposed to return home to his family after serving a two-year sentence for passing a bad check. Instead, he died of heatstroke in Hutchins State Jail near Dallas, Texas. McCollum spent his last moments trapped in an airless cell, unable to turn on a fan or open a window. His story isn’t unique. Prisons and jails  across the country have seen similarly tragic deaths and injuries associated with extreme temperatures.

Next week, fights against climate change and mass incarceration will come into focus as the climate justice movement gears up for its international mobilization—which starts September 8—and human rights activists see the September 9 culmination of a 20-day nationally coordinated strike in prisons and immigrant detention centers.

With heat waves across the East Coast, wildfires across the West and record flooding through the middle, this summer has been another harsh reminder of what climate change looks like. The over two-million people incarcerated in the U.S. can end up  feeling these changes magnified through the lens of inequity. Prisoners are often victims of the system that criminalizes already-vulnerable people based on poverty, drug use, immigration status or mental illness. Adding the reality of a changing climate creates a new level of threat to the nation inside.

Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 700%, far outpacing population growth and crime. In that time, despite what climate deniers and the current presidential administration would like to claim, temperatures have drastically changed, with a similar steady, steep rise (according to federal agencies such as NASA, NOAA and EPA).

The obvious result for people trapped in prisons, jails and immigrant detention facilities: It’s a hotter, even deadlier time to be living behind bars over the summer. But there’s a reason people now use the phrase climate change rather than “global warming” as it can also be a colder time than prisoners are prepared for in the winter. Broken windows, dysfunctional heating systems and the use of “strip cells” can result in tortuously low temperatures as well. Not to mention the increase of prison flooding disasters.

In promoting the week long climate justice convergence next month titled “It Takes Roots,” organizers stated their goal of “reinvestment in local community solutions that ensure a Just Transition from the current extractive economy to a regenerative one.” This is identical to our goal for ending mass incarceration, with the “extractive” industry being the removal of people from poor urban communities to imprison them in poor rural ones as a way of reinforcing the white supremacy in both realms.

Last year, the Nation Inside network and our partnering organizations kicked off #StopTheHeat, a campaign aimed at exposing extreme temperatures in prisons across the country. We amplified stories from prisoners, formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones in order to spread them across the country and call for action.

While stopping the heat is a good metaphor for decarceration, temperature is actually just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the connections between climate change and prison.

Here at Nation Inside we are gearing up to build off the #StopTheHeat campaign by developing bonds between climate and prison activists dedicated to using a just transition framework and environmental justice principles to move local communities towards developing alternatives to incarceration, from the bottom up, as part of an urban/rural coalition on justice.

From the thousands of human-trafficked climate refugee prisoners of Puerto Rico post-Maria to the prison slave wildfire fighters of California, the overlap between climate and incarceration couldn’t be made clearer.

If you see the potential power in joining these movements to push for change, join Nation Inside today as we develop stories and strategies for justice.

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