Australia, like many other countries, is seeing the damaging impact of climate change on communities and ecosystems. In the face of these worsening climate change impacts, marginalised people and communities are most at risk, including people in prison. In December 2019, when bushfires burned close to Lithgow Correctional Centre in New South Wales, people detained – around a quarter of whom were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – were kept locked inside as nearby areas were evacuated.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further reinforced that people deprived of their liberty are especially
vulnerable in times of crisis. The physical and mental health of people in prison, who disproportionately come from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds, is also well below the general population. People in prison experience higher rates of mental ill-health, chronic physical health conditions such as asthma or arthritis, acquired brain injury, and high-risk drug and alcohol use. The prevalence of such underlying conditions amplify the health risks during emergencies such as pandemics or bushfire.
The impacts of climate change on people in prison, such as extreme temperatures and
increasingly severe and frequent disasters, may be exacerbated in Australia by rising prison
populations, prison size and location, overcrowding, punitive practices such as solitary
confinement, ageing or otherwise unsuitable infrastructure, and ineffective standards, monitoring
and accountability mechanisms.
In this context, issues including extreme temperatures in prisons, the location, size, security
rating and infrastructure of prisons, emergency management procedures, inspections and
oversight all demand renewed scrutiny. But more fundamentally, a shift away from
incarceration, which disproportionately impacts already marginalised communities (who are
also most at risk of climate change impacts), is the only effective and humane response.
This paper seeks to spark that conversation – to draw attention to the overlapping social and
ecological harms of the prison system, and to make the case for why a just transition must
include a focus on decarceration.