Natural hazards and extreme weather patterns are increasing in frequency and intensity in many countries around the world, with an 80 per cent increase in climate related disasters over the last four decades. Despite this, by the end of 2020, only 93 countries had implemented disaster risk strategies at the national level. Climate-related events have a disproportionate impact on low-income countries and the negative effects are felt more severely by vulnerable populations.
People in prison are among those hardest impacted by natural hazards and extreme weather. Unlike the general population, people in prison are not able to decide for themselves whether to evacuate to safer ground, stockpile emergency items or even communicate easily with their support networks outside of prison. They, therefore, face not only the immediate threat of the hazard itself – such as heatwaves, fire, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and cyclones – but also the impact of these events on prison infrastructure, staffing and the provision of basic goods and services.
Many prisons do not have evacuation plans and other crisis response strategies in place, and those that do often fail to adequately balance the safety and human rights of people in prison with concerns over public security. Existing measures often focus on immediate emergency response procedures, with little consideration of the detrimental impact on individual detainees or, in the case of evacuations, the safeguards that need to be in place in the receiving facility.
When a decision is taken not to evacuate a facility, the prison population and staff can be left in unsanitary, dangerous and sometimes fatal situations and are likely to face difficult living conditions with potential loss of electricity, shortages of food, water and medical supplies. Access to emergency or specialised medical care may be cut, causing particular problems for older, sick or pregnant people or those with physical disabilities or mental health conditions.
Authorities in some countries have recently been faced with responding to natural hazards while dealing with the dual threat of COVID-19. In September 2020, four prisons in the US state of Oregon, were evacuated due to wildfire hazards, exacerbating concerns over the potential spread of COVID-19 among the already overcrowded prison population, and leading to criticism of authorities’ disaster preparedness in relation to safety, access to medical care and sanitary facilities. In California, people detained that were living in tents, introduced as a measure to limit the spread of COVID-19, were moved back into the main prison facility as fire approached and air pollution rose.
In October 2020, flooding resulting from annual monsoon rains forced the evacuation of more than 3,000 people from prisons in Phnom Penh and Banteay Meanchey province in Cambodia, leading to concerns over access to healthcare, food, water, overcrowding and the spread of COVID-19. Human rights advocates expressed particular concern over the health situation of women who were evacuated by walking through the flood to another overcrowded prison and developed skin infections from inadequate changes of clothing they could bring with them.
The threat or onset of natural hazard can also lead to prison unrest and other incidents linked to overcrowding, inadequate responses or strains on prison resources. In Uganda, there were threats of protests in prisons across the country over the past year due to strains on prison resources and management. People detained in Sentema prison near Kampala staged a protest complaining of congestion and flooding of the prison. In Indonesia in 2017, dozens of detainees escaped from a prison operating at over 3.5 times its official capacity during a protest reportedly triggered by overcrowding; just months later, dozens more escaped from the same prison after floodwaters caused a wall to collapse.
As prison evacuations due to natural hazard or extreme weather become more frequent, there is growing awareness of the need for prisons to be included in national emergency planning and for prison authorities to take action to develop and improve their disaster and emergency preparedness, response and staff training. The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) has made it clear that the possibility of natural hazards such as earthquakes and floods should be considered in choosing a prison site and to ensure the disaster risk resilience of prison infrastructure.
There are many lessons prison authorities can learn from, and authorities should take the opportunity to consult widely about their response plans. For instance, people held in prisons and local communities can also be better prepared for, and involved in, disaster preparedness. Research in the Philippines in 2015 and 2016 found that the wide range of skills, resources and knowledge among prison populations allow them to play an active role in hazard prevention, mitigation, preparedness and disaster management, complemented by support from external networks, and that this can be done without transferring responsibilities from prison authorities.
Furthermore, in some countries, threats such as wildfires, annual floods and extreme weather patterns can be anticipated. Practical considerations around evacuation or shelter-in-place plans must be accompanied by strategies to alleviate other potential harmful consequences. These can include ensuring good communication channels with detainees’ families, continuity of medical care and contingency plans around scheduled release dates or court hearings. Authorities can also safeguard detainee files and personal belongings in advance.
Heatwaves and periods of extreme cold are increasing natural hazards for prison populations, with many prisons ill-equipped to deal with these harsh climactic conditions. During snowstorms in the US state of Texas in 2021, a third of the State’s prisons lost power and 20 had water supply problems, amid reports of food and blanket shortages. Texan prisons were also unable to cope with extreme heat due to the lack of air conditioning units, with a 2017 lawsuit ruling that temperatures must be below 31 degrees Celsius for those who are heat sensitive. This lawsuit followed the deaths of 10 people in prison from heat related illnesses. French authorities have also been criticised for their inability to follow their own protocols in heatwaves, including the distribution of water, the provision of extra showers and increased surveillance of vulnerable people.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.