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New investigation: Over 150 detention facilities faced "hazardous" air quality last week

TLDR: I've got a new piece in The Appeal investigating the impact of the Northeastern wildfire smoke on prisoners in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Read the whole piece here. Or read on for a few additional observations.

Last week, people incarcerated in the Northeast were hit with the same orange skies and hazardous air as the rest of us out here. The difference: they had no choice about how to manage the health risks.

To give a sense of the scale of the problem, I used the EPA's AirNow web site to pull air quality index data for detention facilities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to find out how many were facing "hazardous" air.

My excellent editor Ethan Corey played a huge role in the data analysis, and you can find our data here and a ton of context in my piece for The Appeal, a bad-ass worker-run nonprofit news site that covers the harms of the criminal legal system. We also made a really useful map, where you can look at what kind of air quality individual facilities faced.

Here's a quick summary of the data:

New York: 49 detention facilities hit by "hazardous" air

New Jersey: 36 facilities

Pennsylvania: 63 facilities

Delaware: 7 facilities

All of New York City's jails — including the constellation of notoriously decrepit jails on Rikers Island (see Raven Rakia's piece on the "the environmental disaster that is Rikers Island") — were hit by "hazardous" or "very unhealthy" air last week.

The last couple days my hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota has being hit by the bad air. That means folks in Midwestern facilities are facing the same set of elevated risks that I describe in my article.  

Some details that didn't fit in my piece:

New York's legislative session was just closing down as the thick smoke descended on the state. Rosa Cohen-Cruz, immigration policy director at Bronx Defenders, underlined that lawmakers had failed to pass  the Dignity not Detention Act, which would prohibit New York government entities like county jails to enter into contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Cohen-Cruz, repeatedly noted to me the importance of imprisoning fewer people as a climate justice strategy. She and others argue that there simply is no safe way to incarcerate people given the realities of the deepening climate crisis. I investigated these issues last year via the story of Angel Argueta-Anariba who repeatedly faced climate hazards while in ICE detention. With immigration detention, in particular, people are often sitting in prisons while they pursue asylum or fight in court against deportation. They face greater environmental health hazards and climate-related risks there. If they were allowed to pursue citizenship in the community, they would be safer.

My new piece includes some details about what folks faced in immigration detention at the the Orange County Correctional Facility, a county jail in New York that has a contract to detain people for ICE — but wouldn't be able to if the bill passed.

Originally in my piece, I'd also included a data point that said that nine ICE detention facilities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania faced very unhealthy or hazardous air. But as I fact-checked the data, I realized that many of those facilities no longer held people detained for migration violations. That's in part because New Jersey DID pass a version of the Dignity Not Detention legislation in 2021. At least seven facilities that experienced periods of hazardous or very unhealthy air last week had ceased contracting with ICE under pressure from community members. So that number "9" went down to "3." Where those people ended up, I can't say for sure. But they weren't at those hazardous facilities. The system was forced to respond to people organizing.

Getting in the weeds on some data limitations

Ok most people should just stop reading now, but for people who are really into this stuff, just a couple notes about the data:

The Department of Homeland Security's database of prisons is far from perfect — something I learned while working on my Climate and Punishment project at The Intercept (which I'm super proud of and you should check out). It's not always perfectly up to date — jails and prisons open and close all the time, and DHS apparently can't keep up. But it does provide the most complete picture I'm aware of of the mass incarceration system nationally.

The database includes jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, ICE detention facilities, halfway houses, and treatment centers. I've only included facilities marked in the database as "open," leaving out those marked "closed" or "not available."

If you look at sites like Purple Air, you'll realize that air quality varies significantly block by block and changes constantly. But the EPA AirNow data, which is what we used, is generally considered the standard for real-time air quality data, and it's a valuable indicator of what people are facing. No data is perfect — it's just a useful storytelling tool.

So it's totally possible that some of these prisons did see much higher air quality indexes than what our data shows — or much lower. The same could be said for any temperature or heat index data – it varies block to block, but that's not what you see when you look up the weather in your area.

The climate crisis is hyper-local, man.