Louisiana is experiencing an unprecedented fire season with tens of thousands of acres burned throughout the state. Experts and state officials say that wildfire seasons like this one could become more normal as the state gets hotter and drier due to climate change. And as more wildfires burn, smoke from those fires will likely blanket large swaths of Louisiana sky and create unhealthy air quality.
Many residents have agency over how to escape wildfires and the smoke that comes with them. But one Louisiana population, people who are incarcerated, don’t have that same level of control over how to respond to ecological disasters, including a growing threat of wildfires.
Wildfires are projected to increase by 25% and property damage from them is projected to increase to over $11 million by 2050, according to research from the LSU AgCenter.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections says corrections officials are ready to handle environmental threats to its prisoners from wildfires and smoke from those fires.
“The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections is prepared to take action to protect its inmate population when threatened by any emergency including a wildfire or smoke,” said Ken Pastorick, communications director for the department. Pastorick said the department will use input from other departments, like the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality, to figure out when and how to act to protect prisoners from wildfires and smoke.
But some advocates for prison reform disagree. They say the way the corrections system treats its prisoners during other ecological disasters, such as hurricanes and extreme heat, bodes poorly for the department’s ability to take care of them during disasters. And they say that the state needs a comprehensive plan to care for the prison population during disasters.
“What we’ve seen is that the concern that the state and sheriff’s have for the safety of incarcerated people during natural disasters does not always meet the level of concern we would like to see given how vulnerable incarcerated people are,” said Michael Cahoon, co-lead organizer and policy advocate for the prison reform group The Promise of Justice Initiative.
Prisoners in Louisiana already face potentially dangerous environmental conditions. During the extreme heat this summer, prisoners complained of overheating in prisons with no air conditioning.
“Incarcerated people try to mitigate those conditions the best they can, given their limited freedom of movement and limited resources to keep themselves safe,” Cahoon said. “But really, they depend on the state. And oftentimes, we feel that the state has let them down.”
Rubayet Bin Mostafiz, a researcher at LSU AgCenter who has studied future wildfire risk in the state, said most of the state prisons in Louisiana are near areas where there’s more vegetation to burn. These areas, called the wildland-urban interface, are a mix of undeveloped and developed land, where fires can spread more quickly and do more damage to property.
“Some facilities or households have wildland forests just behind them, so they should know what to do if a sudden wildfire nearby,” he said.
The jails and prisons with the highest projected wildfire probability in 2050 are inland in the southwestern part of the state and the eastern Florida Parishes, according to a Verite analysis of data provided by Bin Mostafiz. Most of the facilities in those areas are parish-run jails.
There are several federal facilities in the highest-risk areas, but the only state prison in either of those higher-risk areas is Allen Correctional Center in Kinder. There are also Allen and four parish jails are within a 50-mile radius of where the Tiger Island Fire, the largest in the history of Louisiana that produced poor air quality statewide, originated.
While the Department of Corrections and prison reform advocates both said there have been no reports of the wildfires in southwest Louisiana endangering prisoners, there was an industrial fire early this year that raged for nearly two weeks next to Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Cottonport.
It originated at a shuttered tire factory, which meant that harmful chemicals were being released into the air. The Department of Corrections and Public Safety told Verite that it “safely and efficiently” moved approximately 1,500 prisoners from Laborde to nearby facilities on Jan. 20. By then smoke from the fire, which started on Jan. 16, had already entered the prison facility, according to accounts from people incarcerated there, as published in a report by The Intercept.
Asked about the incident, Pastorick disputed that account, saying favorable winds pushed smoke away from the prison in the initial days. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality monitored the air for pollution, which they said wasn’t high enough to warrant evacuation, Pastorick added. Once the wind changed directions and blew smoke toward the prison on January 20, he said, the prison consulted the LDEQ and fire marshal, then evacuated the prison.
“The entire prison population and staff were monitored from the onset for any impact from the smoke. The prison’s medical staff immediately examined any prisoners who reported health concerns,” he said. “All were cleared.”
Prison reform advocates said this instance could be a preview of what’s to come as wildfire risk increases.
“The incidents in the last few years reveal that we are not prepared, that we either have a lack of planning, a lack of training or a lack of appropriate urgency,” said Sarah Omojola, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Louisiana office.
The state Department of Corrections houses nearly nearly 15,000 in its own facilities. But tens of thousands more — including state prisoners and pretrial detainees — are housed in local jails, each controlled by elected sheriffs, each with their own individual disaster-response protocols.
Asked if the state provides any guidance to local jails for dealing with wildfire risks, the Department of Corrections said the parish sheriff’s are responsible for the care of the prisoners at their facilities. A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said they are ready to support parishes by coordinating to get resources to help with emergencies if parishes reach out for that type of assistance.
Verite attempted to contact five local jails around metro New Orleans with questions about fire response policies and protocols. Only Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson’s office responded.
While the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s office said it doesn’t have a protocol for dealing with wildfires, they said they’d likely follow their protocol for dealing with hurricanes. The parish has a plan for evacuating the Orleans Justice Center in preparation for disasters like hurricanes, including housing and feeding of prisoners and prison staff and prioritization of populations with needs that are different from the general population, like people in LGBTQIA+ community or those with acute mental health needs.
Thousands of incarcerated people were abandoned at the New Orleans jail during Hurricane Katrina, where many had to live in water coming chest or neck high for several days, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union. Since then, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, has pivoted toward evacuating in the face of oncoming storms.
In 2021, the city jail was evacuated prior to Hurricane Ida making landfall, even as the city government held back on issuing a general evacuation order. (The evacuees were sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where some said they were exposed to “dirty and unsafe” conditions.)
But different ecological disasters affect ecosystems in diffferent ways. For example, smoke from a nearby wildfire could threaten the health and safety of prisoners without the area actually being exposed to flames, while flooding from a hurricane actually has to reach a facility to have its effects felt. Prison reform advocats say the state has a responsibility to develop a more comprehensive plan for how to protect prisoners during ecological disasters. And unless that happens, tens of thousands of people are under threat from climate change without the same agency to protect themselves as the rest of the state’s population.
“I think it’s very fair to say that as we see increased climate related disasters,” Cahoon said, “you will see increased danger posed to incarcerated people.”
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