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Incarceration in a changing climate

  • 18 January 2022
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