Outdated facilities, and mismanagement, are already putting incarcerated people at risk. As the climate warms, the safety risks increase.
This past winter, harsh storms broke dozens of weather records in California. Precipitation totaling hundreds of feet, along with nearly freezing temperatures, knocked out parts of the state’s infrastructure. These natural phenomena exacerbate what ACLU lawsuits describe as the “inhumane” conditions of Los Angeles County jails, institutions that currently house approximately 15,000 incarcerated people. It’s a problem that will likely only worsen, as scientists predict that extreme winters — along with extended heat waves and wildfire seasons — will become common in California due to climate change.
Meredith Gallen, member of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union, said that while the weather is not her clients’ primary concern, the lack of preparation of county jails to withstand extreme natural conditions builds on the already existing issues her clients experience. One concern that Gallen raised is the spread of diseases, such as COVID-19 and tuberculosis, which is exacerbated by lower temperatures. On top of the health risks for incarcerated people themselves, this can also be dangerous for everyone else. “There’s a recognition that people who are in jail are not going to be incarcerated in perpetuity and that they’ll be released into the community, and it could increase community spread,” she said.
“I recall … always being too cold with not enough adequate blankets or clothing to stay warm,” said James Nelson, who was incarcerated in the 1970s in Men’s Central Jail. The jail’s facilities, first built in 1963, were deemed inadequate even by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department itself more than a decade ago.
Nelson also recalled the spread of illness in the jail, which he said that poor air quality and overcrowding exacerbated. “When a case of TB comes out, it spreads quickly because the living quarters are so tight — people [are] jammed up in different places, and a lot of times they’re not given the proper equipment for disinfecting.”
Berklee Donavan, LA County Jails conditions advocate at ACLU SoCal, said that she has fielded extra requests for thermals and additional blankets from inmates at the Inmate Reception Center (IRC) this past winter. Many inmates were placed in cold-temperature environments with weak airflow.
“This winter, [there were] definitely a lot more requests for thermals that have somewhat been met,” she said. “Other times it is a challenge to get them an additional blanket or to get them more thermals, but we try to ask about [them] when the temperature dips, and we see and hear that it’s really cold inside the facilities.”
The lack of ventilation in LA County jails is another condition cited in a 2022 lawsuit, Rutherford v. Villanueva, regarding the standards in the IRC. As climate change also increases humidity in Southern California, the lack of ventilation in county jails can lead to the growth of toxic molds. One concern Gallen raised in particular is the potential for spread of valley fever, a disease caused by a fungus known to grow in the southwestern United States. Valley fever can cause flu-like symptoms and long-term lung problems, according to the CDC.
A 2013 case granted a consent decree against putting California inmates at a heightened risk of contracting the illness in valley fever zones. The order granted inmates protection against valley fever as an Eighth Amendment right. Gallen said that the disease, which has become more widespread due to climate change, is a future concern for LA County jail inmates.
Flooding from storms is another concern exacerbated by climate change. Two of the nine jail facilities in Los Angeles County are located within 500 feet of a high-risk flood zone. That includes the IRC, which sits alongside the Los Angeles River. At least three of LA County’s jail facilities, including the IRC, are also located within a mile of zones at risk for wildfires.
While floods have not yet hit LA County jails, according to Gallen, this risk will only grow. Experts say that climate change will increase the threat and severity of a hypothetical “megastorm” in California. If it were to happen, the Los Angeles River may flood and put those on the river’s shore, including inmates at IRC and Twin Towers, in need of evacuation.
Donavan said that many LA County jails already experience flooding, but the jails are not transparent about the cause of the floods. According to Donavan, a facility in the north of the county did flood this winter, though she is not currently aware if the floods were caused by storms or by HVAC mechanical issues. Protocol, she said, is to move inmates to a new dorm if their toilets or showers flood, but that it won’t happen if the facility is at capacity or over capacity due to lack of space.
“So people end up sitting in their cells that have been flooded and are damp … for possibly days at a time before it actually gets addressed or fixed or they’re able to be moved anywhere,” she said.
In the event that disaster hits, Gallen is skeptical of the county’s emergency evacuation preparation. She highlighted the 2019 crisis when the Saddle Ridge Fire broke out near Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Detention Center in Sylmar, California. As Celeste Fremon reported in WitnessLA, the facility’s mismanaged evacuation of the 278 residents on Campus Kilpatrick led to multiple reports of assaults on unchaperoned buses. Gallen fears a future storm or wildfire will result in a similar situation for inmates at IRC.
“I think that if there were a crisis of that magnitude, or something comparable to happen in the jail, I would expect things to unfold in a very similar way,” Gallen said. “I would be shocked to learn of a safety plan that could accommodate the number of people who are currently housed in any of the four main jail facilities. I just don’t think they’re prepared.”