Weather, climate and water hazards have accounted for 50% of all disasters, 45% of all reported deaths and 74% of all reported economic losses worldwide between 1970 and 2019. Although overall deaths from such disasters have decreased in this period, 91% of all deaths occurred in low-income countries.
While governments and societies contend with addressing drastic climate change events, prisons are often not accounted for in hazard risk management, disaster mitigation plans or in the aftermath of dealing with climate disasters in both higher and lower income countries. In response to this, PRI issued new guidance in 2021 on disaster risk reduction for prisons, representing the first of its kind. Based on primary research, it presents practical measures with a human rights-based approach for practitioners and frontline staff working in prison systems.
Prisons are often not accounted for in hazard risk management, disaster mitigation plans or in the aftermath of dealing with climate disasters.
Extreme weather is increasingly claiming more lives – close to 9.4% of global deaths each year are attributable to extreme heat or cold – and has long been a major concern for people in prisons. An inquiry by the National Human Rights Commission in Chad found 44 people died in a prison in one night because they were all kept in a dangerously overcrowded cell at 46 degrees Celsius. Even in high-income countries like Australia, temperatures in the summer can reach 50 degrees Celsius inside prison cells with no air conditioning. A similar absence of air conditioning in prisons in Texas and Mississippi in the US resulted in lawsuits to install air conditioning after a heatwave saw temperatures soar over 37 degrees Celsius. During a particularly cold winter in New York in 2020, when temperatures hovered around -15 degrees Celsius, prisons were not equipped with sufficient heating and warm clothes or secure windows that could keep the cold out. Prison staff too are similarly affected by extreme temperatures and have sued the prison system for related health issues.
Extreme weather can also have indirect impacts on the living situation of people in prison by raising the risk of violence. A global study of 57 cities between 1995 and 2012 found that an overall one degree Celsius increase in temperature is associated with a 6% average increase in homicides, and regional variations in the impact of the rise in temperature on violent crimes was also observed. Research in Mississippi in the US, one of the states that does not provide air conditioning in prisons, found that on days with an average temperature of 26 degrees Celsius or more, violence in prisons increased by 20%.
In 2021, fires in prisons in Indonesia and Burundi resulted in at least 40 fatalities.
The high rates of overcrowding in prisons across the world also impact how people in prison experience natural hazards and other disasters. Overcrowded prisons exacerbate the conditions of extreme weather, in particular due to limited ventilation and outdoor time, as well as with other hazards like prison fires. In 2021, fires broke out in prisons in Indonesia and Burundi and at least 40 fatalities were reported. The prisons in both countries were severely overcrowded and held at least three times their capacity, allowing for the fire to spread rapidly while making it extremely challenging for those in prison to find means of escape.
In Madagascar, two successive cyclones and related flooding in February 2022 caused significant damage to five prisons and blocked roads left prisons without food and drinking water. In Mananjary Prison, which reportedly holds three times its official capacity, overcrowding exacerbates limited food and water supplies, leaving detainees without adequate nutrition. The roof was blown off the prison by the high winds and reports suggest people had to squat all night in the prison chapel as there was not enough space to lie down.
The absence of disaster management plans and effective responses focused on prisons has induced fears among people detained in the face of a disaster, leading to escapes and prison unrest. After earthquakes in Chile, Indonesia and Nepal for instance, many attempted to escape as prison walls collapsed, water flooded the buildings, and food and water were in low supply. In Australia, unrest erupted in a prison following the lack of air conditioning during extremely high summer temperatures in 2018.
Further, the absence of contingency planning, especially during water-based disasters, can have ripple effects like contamination of the water supply, food shortages, overflowing toilets and the spread of infections – all of which further affect the physical and mental health of those who are imprisoned. As COVID-19 hit alongside natural disasters like a tornado in South Carolina and Hurricane Ida in Louisiana in the US, prisons had to initiate sudden transfers and mandatory evacuations in the midst of the pandemic, cutting off individuals from their families.