A book that made me think more deeply about climate

I read Just Mercy this weekend – I know, I’m 6 years late – and it’s as good and powerful and moving and heartbreaking and enlightening as everyone says it is. Even though it’s not a book about the environment, it’s prompted me to learn more about the connections between criminal justice and climate change. 

Surprisingly, aside from articles on the harsh environmental conditions facing people who are incarcerated (extreme heat, overcrowding, contaminated water, or dangerous inmate jobs such as fighting wildfires – see links at the end), I found little on the environmental costs of mass incarceration.

In a 75-page report from the US Department of Justice in 2011 titled “The Greening of Corrections”, the impact of mass incarceration was not even *hinted* at once. While reducing emissions in houses of corrections and training inmates for green jobs is all well and good, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the thought of a “sustainable prison” without questioning the proverbial elephant in the room: this country’s strange and infuriating affinity for locking people up.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “the American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.” Nearly half a million people are held in local jails for pretrial detention – meaning people who have not even been convicted or sentenced – and we still lock them up largely because they can’t afford to pay bail.

Image credit: The Prison Policy Initiative.

In Just Mercy, in which public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative documents his work redeeming innocent people on death row, he summarized the issue succinctly. “Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. Prison growth and the resulting ‘prison-industrial complex’ – the businesses interests that capitalize on prison construction – made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem. Incarceration became the answer to everything – health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues* generated responses from the legislators that involved sending people to prison.”

(*Remember this book was published in 2014; the number of immigrants in detention centers has swelled especially under the current administration.)

This section stopped me in my tracks because it struck me that every single factor that Stevenson listed – healthcare, poverty, mental health, and migration – will be and is already worsened by climate change. It also made me think that greed, a blatant lack of compassion and humanity, and our arrogant sense of self-righteousness (e.g., for thinking that we can rationally decide who deserves to die) captures many of the same reasons why we have mass incarceration and a climate crisis on our hands.

Resource scarcity and extreme environmental conditions exacerbate conflicts, and conflicts land more people (but especially BIPOC folks) in prisons. In a not-too-distant future when millions of Americans may be displaced and when millions more climate refugees arrive at our shores because their homelands are no longer inhabitable, will we be locking them up too?

I’m both inspired and heartbroken by Just Mercy. Injustices are all around us, and the privilege and comfort I experience every day make me feel deeply undeserving and guilt-ridden. There is so much work to do, and it’s paralyzing to think about where you and I fit in. I guess if anything, Stevenson’s book taught me that individuals do make a difference. To quote Margaret Mead: “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

A collection of links for further reading: