June 21, 2023

Joshua Stickney, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, 405-315-4151

Ashley Chambers, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, 510-285-8227

California’s Climate Response Plan Fails to Protect Incarcerated People, Hidden Hazards Report Shows 

“Being locked down inside a cell that’s extremely hot…you literally can barely go to sleep because the wall is sweating.”

Oakland, CA — Today, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs released Hidden Hazards: The Impacts of Climate Change on Incarcerated People in California State Prisons, a first-of-its-kind report which details how California state prisons — and the people housed inside them — are not protected from looming climate hazards. After surveying nearly 600 people currently incarcerated at California’s 34 prisons, the report examines the intersections of climate change, environmental justice, and the carceral system — outlining the lack of climate disaster preparedness plans by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr).

Released on the first day of summer and during President Joe Biden’s visit to California focused on climate preparedness, Hidden Hazards finds that California state prisons are highly susceptible to climate hazards with over half — 18 prisons — being vulnerable to extreme heat, and also impacted by wildfires, flooding, and extreme cold. The report also finds that CDCr has an insufficient emergency plan in place, indicating that they would take the same reactive steps when responding to climate hazards as they did during COVID-19.

We know that prisons do not keep people safe and we’ve unfortunately witnessed that during the COVID-19 pandemic and several climate disasters over the past decade,” said Emily Harris, Co-Director of Programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, who was an advisor on Hidden Hazards. “While California officials and CDCr take measures for the safety of prison staff and communities surrounding state prisons when it comes to wildfires, flooding, and other climate hazards, they put all of us at risk by neglecting to have an adequate climate response plan for people inside. Incarcerated people are forgotten about. Governor Newsom and California officials need to take radical action to protect the community of incarcerated people that are stuck behind prison walls during a climate emergency. Hidden Hazards provides a blueprint on how state officials can implement solutions that start at the root of the problem — reduce the prison population by releasing people, committing to more prison closures across the state, and reinvest funding back into our communities.”

“When we look at the impacts of climate change on our planet and within our communities, the research does not incorporate the impact on people living inside prisons. California has experienced extremely high temperatures in the past decade and wildfires that have destroyed entire communities,” said Maura O’Neill, a coauthor of Hidden Hazards and a recent graduate of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “During these extreme climate hazards, our findings show that incarcerated people do not receive the protection or preparedness they need in these uncertain situations. They are solely dependent on the action, and lack of action, of prison staff and CDCr. This report places the vulnerabilities of people currently incarcerated and California state prisons at the forefront and provides tangible solutions that state officials can take to protect one of the most vulnerable populations in the state.”

Hidden Hazards shows that incarcerated people face unique challenges and are especially vulnerable because they entirely depend on CDCr for preparedness, response, and recovery during a climate hazard. Seventy-one percent (71%) of incarcerated people surveyed for the report believe prison staff will lock them in their cells and leave the prison for their own safety during a climate hazard. 

Juan Haines, a journalist incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, writes, “Climate change isn’t arriving, it’s already happening. Those warnings have sounded for years. But for the 2.3 million of us in prisons and jails, the impacts are more severe as we face overcrowded and architecturally flawed housing units that jeopardize our health and wellbeing.”

In order to address the impact of climate hazards on those incarcerated, Hidden Hazards recommends decarceration as an effective strategy — something that the Ella Baker Center and incarcerated people have advocated for since before COVID-19. The report offers policy recommendations that build on the research done by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and surveys of those incarcerated. These recommendations fall under three categories:

  • Strategies to reduce the prison population;
  • State legislation to strengthen oversight of the procedures and operations of prisons;
  • and, Approaches to address climate adaptation.

“As a formerly incarcerated firefighter, I experienced firsthand the impact of CDCR’s lack of accountability for keeping incarcerated people safe,” said Amika Mota, Executive Director of the Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition and a formerly incarcerated firefighter. “Ella Baker Center’s powerful report highlights the neglect incarcerated people have historically suffered, codified in criminal legal and climate policy. The report’s recommendations align with the growing movement for prison closures in California, which present cost savings for the state that could go toward climate solutions for everyone. When the next climate disaster hits California, incarcerated people deserve to be protected, and we must act now to ensure that CDCR’s climate response plan is as robust as the rest of California’s disaster preparedness plan.”

“As climate change increases the frequency of fires, floods, and extreme temperatures in California, the state must move quickly and decisively to release a substantial percentage of people in locked facilities to prevent foreseeable climate change casualties,” said Alex Binsfeld, Legal Director at the Transgender, Gender-Variant, & Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP).

“Prisons in California are on the frontline of the climate crisis, confronting an unprecedented threat. With wildfires raging, heatwaves intensifying, and floods growing more severe, incarcerated individuals are facing dire, life-or-death situations,” said Brian Kaneda, Deputy Director with Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). “It’s important that we prioritize the assessment of climate change risks when determining which California prisons should be the next to close. By considering the danger posed by climate change, we can make informed decisions that prioritize the safety and wellbeing of those caged and working in California prisons.”

“This report offers eight clear steps that California must take as temperatures rise and unprecedented weather events loom close to the state’s prisons. In the coming years, unprecedented climate incidents will disproportionately impact people behind bars, a marginalized population with higher risk of suffering from extreme heat and flooding,” said Wanda Bertram, Communications Strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative. “This report makes an irrefutable case that California must take action now, including recognizing people behind bars as a vulnerable population — something that other states facing climate crises, such as Alabama and Arkansas, have already done — and prioritizing closing prisons, following the recent example of states like New York.”

“With all of the focus on the impact of climate change on the most marginalized communities, it seems the one community never mentioned are people living inside prisons,” said Beth Waitkus, Founder and Former Executive Director of the Insight Garden Program. “To address this issue head-on—and sooner than later—this report will go a long way to raise awareness and inspire action to protect those who literally have no agency over their lives from the impacts of a warming planet.”

Hidden Hazards includes the following policy recommendations:

  • Strategies to reduce the prison population
    • Option 1: Reduce the size of the incarcerated population by 50,000 with a focus on people 50 years or older and those who are most vulnerable.
    • Option 2: Require CDCR to create rapid release policies to use during times of emergency.
    • Option 3: Close prisons most vulnerable to climate hazards.
  • State Legislation to Strengthen Oversight of the Procedures and Operations of Prisons
    • Option 4: Update the State of California Emergency plan to recognize the vulnerability of incarcerated people.
    • Option 5: Create minimum standards for emergency plans and require CDCR to develop a bi-annual report defining the protocol and resources on-hand to carry out these plans.
    • Option 6: Require CDCR to produce an annual report on the number of climate hazards experienced at CDCR prison facilities.
  • Addressing Climate Adaptation
    • Option 7: Reallocate funding to expand heating, air conditioning, ventilation, shade, and backup generators.
    • Option 8: Expand emergency preparedness training for staff and incarcerated people.

You can read the full report at