The extreme temperatures that are being recorded around the world highlight the importance of reorienting justice systems to focus on keeping people out of prison, as well as ensuring safe conditions for those who are incarcerated, according to John Ryks, Acting Executive Director of Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places.
John Ryks writes:
From mid-June to mid-July, at least 23 people died in Texas prisons from cardiac arrest or undetermined illnesses, in stiflingly hot cells. This, amid wildfires and world-record breaking heatwaves across the northern hemisphere.
While Texas has not reported a heat-related death in prison since 2012, former inmates and family members say heatwaves are cooking people alive – putting unbearable strain on incarcerated people whose physical and mental health is on average far poorer than the general population.
Here in Australia, outdated, uninsulated and overcrowded prisons without air-conditioning are also a threat to people’s lives.
Following years of campaigning from human rights advocates and lawyers, in November last year, the Western Australian Government agreed to air-condition all cells at Roebourne Regional Prison, after temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius at the prison.
Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer, Alice Barter, said: “I’ve been told by men at Roebourne prison that they feel their brains are boiling.”
The Northern Territory Government is now assessing new cooling and heat mitigation strategies at the Alice Springs Correctional Centre, a desert prison where summer temperatures regularly reach 40 degrees Celsius, after allocating no funding for air-conditioning in its 2022-2023 budget. In 2018, a riot sparked at the prison after inmates refused to return to their cells during a heatwave.
Jesuit Social Services is a social change organisation that has worked alongside people involved with the criminal justice system for more than 45 years. We know that the effects of climate change are uneven, and people already experiencing disadvantage or marginalisation are often most at-risk because they have fewer resources to cope, adapt and recover.
Our 2021 Dropping off the Edge report into locational disadvantage across every community in the country included environmental indicators for the first time, in addition to indicators such as unemployment, criminal offending and family violence. The results confirmed what we already suspected – that Australia’s most socially and economically disadvantaged areas also experience disproportionately high levels of air pollution and extreme heat.
Australia is already suffering greater impacts from climate change than any other advanced economy, according to a 2022 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Under a worsening climate, the IPCC says normal outdoor activity across much of northern Australia could become potentially fatal.
In this context, prison infrastructure, emergency management procedures, inspections and oversight demand renewed scrutiny.
People in prison are among those people whose health, wellbeing and lives are most at-risk, and not just during extreme heat.
When a grassfire raged dangerously close to Central New South Wales’ Lithgow Correctional Centre in late 2019, local residents were evacuated and highways closed, but 400 Lithgow prisoners – around a quarter of them Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people – remained locked inside.
Incarcerated people’s movements are highly restricted, leaving them with limited options to keep themselves safe during extreme weather including disasters. Their lives depend on the policies and resources others have put in place to support them.
A just transition
Our discussion paper, Prisons, climate and a just transition, argues prisons should provide adequate facilities to protect people from the impacts of climate change, but more fundamentally, Australia must reduce its reliance on prisons and address the root causes of offending to tackle the overlapping social and ecological harms of its criminal justice systems.
There is plenty of evidence to show Australia’s reliance on imprisonment as a response to crime is ineffective and discriminatory, disproportionately harming the most marginalised people in our communities, and limiting their ability to rehabilitate and lead flourishing lives.
Resulting from a history of colonisation and dispossession, systemic racism, intergenerational trauma and discrimination, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be vastly overrepresented in Australian prisons, making up 32 percent of people incarcerated in Australia, as of June 30 2022, despite being less than four percent of the broader population.
The worsening effects of climate change – without support to adapt – are yet another layer of harm.
Our discussion paper also called for the full implementation of the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), which would include oversight mechanisms to prevent the mistreatment of people in detention. The United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, established by the OPCAT, cancelled its visit to Australia in early 2023 after being blocked from full access to some Australian detention facilities.
Incarcerated people should be supported to adapt to extreme weather – including by ensuring prisons nation-wide have adequate and consistent temperature standards, providing air-conditioning in temperatures that regularly exceed 40 degrees, and ensuring Government oversight and accountability to keep incarcerated people safe and healthy.
We strongly support the Northern Territory Ombudsman’s call for the Government to install air-conditioning in Alice Springs Correctional Centre.
Abandon damaging systems
On a structural level, we must reorient our justice systems to focus on keeping people out of prison in the first place.
Senior leaders from Jesuit Social Services previously explored effective criminal justice systems across parts of Europe, the United States and New Zealand, as part of our #JusticeSolutions tours – observing systems which treat prison as a last resort, and in the very limited set of circumstances where prison must be used, ensure prison resembles life in the community as closely as possible.
Rather than investing in opening new prisons and designing harsher and more inflexible sentences, we must listen to the voices of people most impacted by the justice system, resource preventative, therapeutic, and restorative programs, and explore community-led alternatives to imprisonment that truly hold people accountable for their actions.
A just transition to an ecologically sustainable, zero greenhouse gas emissions future necessitates moving away from damaging economic and social systems, including Australia’s reliance on imprisonment.
In what United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has dubbed ‘the era of global boiling’, we must support incarcerated people to adapt to extreme weather, while moving towards an Australia where prisons are truly a last resort.
• John Ryks is Acting Executive Director of Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places
See Croakey’s archive of articles on prisons and health