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Incarceration in a changing climate


The images are simultaneously striking and terrifying. A raging grassfire that is shooting flames into the sky and destroying nature around it and lapping perilously close to the fences around Central NSW’s Lithgow Correctional Centre. As local residents were evacuated and highways were closed to protect public safety when the fire raged out of control just before Christmas in 2019, 400 prisoners remained detained.

‘Shut the prisons and provide safety,’ came the blunt but ultimately unheeded message from Bundjalung woman Nessa Turnbull-Roberts. But the prison wasn’t closed, and the prisoners, around a quarter of them Aboriginal, were exposed to significant harm.

The overlapping nature of the social harms of the prison system, packed with overwhelmingly marginalised people from disadvantaged communities, and the ecological harms of the prison system have never been clearer.

The recent report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) put the imminent climate threats to Australia in the international spotlight. Already, heatwaves alone kill more people in Australia than all other extreme weather events combined and are projected to increase. They also hit harder in many disadvantaged suburbs, where there are often lower levels of protective vegetation cover, poorer quality housing and higher than average pre-existing health issues.

Extreme weather events such as cyclones, storms, droughts, floods and fires threaten lives, homes, infrastructure and livelihoods, put immense pressure on our emergency services and impact negatively on energy and food security.


"But overall, we need to rethink our justice systems. We require a more humane response that prioritises addressing the underlying causes of offending to drive down the need for prisons in the first place."


And while we justly talk about the impact of climate change on our environment, our homes and livelihoods and our future generations, seldom do we reflect on the ways in which the existing harms of the prison system overlap with and exacerbate the impacts of climate change for some of the most marginalised in our community.

Sadly, the Lithgow case is not an isolated example. In December 2018, a riot at Alice Springs Correctional Centre was linked to a heat wave, exacerbated by overcrowding and a lack of air conditioning in cells. Excessive, prolonged heat takes its toll in a variety of direct and indirect ways:  disrupting sleep, causing health problems, and creating conflict. Between January and July 2019, Alice Springs experienced 129 days over 35°C and 55 days over 40°C.

The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory heard from numerous young people about the oppressive conditions in youth detention, one saying: ‘in isolation, we were always hungry and thirsty. We did not have access to water in our cells and a couple of times the guards told us that we weren’t allowed to have water.’

Similar issues have been raised around the country of ‘unbearable heat’ in Western Australia’s Roebourne Prison, a facility described by the state’s Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services as posing ‘a significant threat to prisoner health’ due to extreme temperatures. Across minimum security prisons in New South Wales and Tasmanian prisons inspection reports have detailed poor insulation and inadequate heating and cooling that failed to meet basic standards of climate control, ventilation and nature light.

Just last week in Roebourne, a small mining town in the north-west of Western Australia, incarcerated people sweltered through an unbearable 50-degree day in small prison cells without air conditioning.

There are numerous reasons why the impacts of climate change on people in prison in Australia are exacerbated. These include our rising prison populations, overcrowding, ageing or otherwise unsuitable infrastructure and punitive practices like solitary confinement. Australia also has no national temperature standards for prisons.

If we step aside from the clear climate challenges to look at the effectiveness of prison systems across Australia, we see that they are is a source of harm, that often leave people worse off than before they entered.

To highlight a couple of points, the national recidivism rate of 54.9 per cent means that more than half of people released from prison return to corrective services (prison or community corrections) within two years. Our ever-increasing incarceration rates (208 people per 100,000 of the adult population were imprisoned as of December 2020, up from 167 people per 100,000 a decade ago) also present a significant cost to the taxpayer. In 2019-20, Australia spent $5.2 billion on prisons (including operating expenditure and capital costs).

In addition to the financial cost of prison, there is a significant environmental cost. New prison sites invariably use large tracts of land and often clear vegetation, such as the new prison near Grafton in New South Wales, built on approximately 195 hectares of land.

This can pose issues with contaminated land that can impact prisoners and prison staff alike. The site of NSW’s Silverwater remand centre was previously used as a landfill site and ‘a number of contaminants’ are present in the soil. Some misguided initiatives such as repurposing shipping containers to detain people — a practice that has been portrayed as low-cost and low-energy — are problematic in terms of the health and well-being of people detained.


"This reorientation, from prisons to interventions that hold people to account and support people to lead crime-free, safe and healthy lives, should be seen as an integral part of a just transition to a sustainable future."


It is clear that new approaches are needed. Australia’s reliance on incarceration as a response to crime is not only harmful, ineffective and costly, but increasingly untenable in a world of worsening climate change.

A new discussion paper by Jesuit Social Services calls on Australian Governments to be transparent regarding how the justice system is meeting its obligations under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules) rules that cover a range of matters pertinent to ensuring safe and healthy living conditions for people in prison, including in relation to temperature, lighting and ventilation.

This, as well as the effective implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) in Australia, can help to prevent the mistreatment of people in prison.

But overall, we need to rethink our justice systems. We require a more humane response that prioritises addressing the underlying causes of offending to drive down the need for prisons in the first place.

This goal can be achieved by resourcing prevention, therapeutic and restorative programs as well as community-led alternatives to prison, an end to mandatory sentencing and the prohibition of practices like solitary confinement. Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years would be an immediate way Australian state and territory Governments can begin to end the harmful cycle of incarceration.

This reorientation, from prisons to interventions that hold people to account and support people to lead crime-free, safe and healthy lives, should be seen as an integral part of a just transition to a sustainable future.



Julie EdwardsJulie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services.


Image: Alice Springs Correctional Centre (CASA)

Topic tags: Julie Edwards, climate, incarceration, Jesuit Social Services, prison systems



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Existing comments

Bundjalung woman, Nessa Turnbull-Roberts, presumably included the over 75% of non-Aboriginal inmates in her unheeded plea!! It would be interesting Ms Edwards to hear some principles outlined as to how we can eliminate the need for incarceration rather than painting the perpetrators of crimes against others as the victims.

john frawley | 20 January 2022  

Prisoners should be housed at the temperature at which one can participate meaningfully in the Mass.

roy chen yee | 22 January 2022  

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