Climate and Punishment

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: The Intercept

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-02-12

Language: English

Authors: Alleen Brown, Akil Harris


Alleen Brown is a New York-based reporter, focused on environmental justice issues. Her work has been published by The Intercept, The Nation, In These Times, YES! Magazine, and various Twin Cities publications.

Akil Harris is a Senior Research Engineer at First Look Media.

Project description:

“Climate and Punishment” is a groundbreaking examination of the climate emergency’s devastating effects on incarcerated people. Reporter Alleen Brown worked with research engineer Akil Harris to harness datasets for heat risk, wildfire risk, and flood risk and juxtapose them against a federal government index of over 6,500 facilities from across the United States’s sprawling mass incarceration system. Our submission includes five stories, one short film, an interactive map, an explainer on our methodology and data, and the full dataset. The project launched on February 12, 2022; two additional stories were published on March 13 and March 31, 2022.

Impact reached:

Until recently, very little scholarship or investigative journalism has focused on climate issues in prisons. As academics, policymakers, and organizers increasingly pay attention to this problem, “Climate and Punishment” is becoming a foundational resource for a burgeoning movement. From California to Florida, organizers pushing for installation of air conditioning or for the closure of prisons are using Alleen and Akil Harris’s work to argue for policy change. The work is also being used to support individual cases. For example, Alleen’s piece on ICE detention was made part of a campaign that led to Argueta Anariba’s release from detention on bond after seven years in detention. Argueta Anariba’s story was highlighted by High Country News as one of the biggest immigration stories of 2022.

The work is also influencing a range of academic disciplines. Alleen was invited to speak about the project alongside renowned prison scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore at the opening plenary of the 2022 Beyond the Bars Conference, Columbia University’s annual mass incarceration conference. The video has been incorporated into curriculum for medical students at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, the map is now part of a course on heat and inequality at UCLA, and the series was recently cited in a Harvard Law Review chapter, focusing on what the climate crisis means for prosecutors. Alleen is aware of a human rights organization and a group of academics who are both preparing reports repurposing the data or methodology.

The project received more than 128,000 page views in the first 7 days, and was shared on social media by a slew of social justice organizations, including Global Health Now, Innocence Project, The Marshall Project, Roots Action, and The Opportunity Agenda.

Techniques/technologies used:

We used a variety of tools like Python, Node.js, PostGIS, PostgreSQL, D3.js, Pandas, AQIS, and Leaflet. Much of the geospatial analysis was done in QGIS, PostGIS/PostgreSQL, which would then be exported as Json or CSV to be used in Python with Pandas to do further analysis across the different climate factor datasets. This data was then used by Alleen to do analysis for her reporting and to power the interactive map. The map was built with a combination of Node.js, D3.js, Leaflet, and Svelte.js. The final data analysis is loaded into the map as Json, and the facilities with their respective factor ratings are plotted and searchable.

We collected and analyzed data from a number of different sources, including the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data, the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildfire Risk to Communities project, the First Street Foundation’s flood model, the Union of Concerned Scientists’s Killer Heat analysis, and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s online list of holding facilities.

Context about the project:

To our knowledge, no one else has conducted a prison climate risk mapping analysis like this, nor does there exist a comparably comprehensive exploration of the impacts of the climate crisis on prisons. Alleen struggled to find strong background literature to guide her reporting and relied on a variety of geographically diverse sources.

Finding people who had experienced the impacts of flooding, heat, and wildfires inside prisons and were willing to talk about it took a significant amount of time on top of the data work. The prisoners who shared their stories did so at significant personal risk, because of the possibility of retaliation. To locate knowledgeable sources, Alleen spent weeks contacting public defenders, Facebook groups for loved ones of the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated people, prison policy advocates, and researchers. Because the reporting was conducted during the first two years of the pandemic, many people inside prisons had restricted access to phones and other means of communication, so reaching sources for a first phone call often took weeks or months. Incarcerated sources’ health, wellbeing and, in many cases, timing of release is largely dependent on the discretion of prison personnel, so many of the people Alleen reached ultimately chose not to share their stories publicly.

For the ICE reporting, Alleen conducted interviews in Spanish. Using a translator would have been virtually impossible, given the challenge of coordinating phone calls from ICE detention. Alleen and the Intercept’s video team put in additional effort to coordinate and record a video interview with Angel Argueta Anariba from inside detention, as we felt it was important to give him an opportunity to tell his own story.

The team prioritized displaying the data in a way that could be used by families and communities impacted by incarceration. The map allows users to view individual facilities to understand how they are impacted by climate risk factors, or to view states and cities to see the range of climate risks facing people who are incarcerated in a given area. We also considered the fact that there exist few maps of the U.S. incarceration system that would allow a user to quickly get a sense of what prisons might be impacted as a storm or wildfire approaches.

The marriage of data with the experience of individual incarcerated people was central to the project. As Nick Shapiro, head of UCLA’s Carceral Ecologies put it, “The project helps legitimize the experiences of millions of incarcerated people in a way that I haven’t seen data journalism do before.”

What can other journalists learn from this project?

The project was always intended to be a resource to other journalists, so we published the full “Climate and Punishment” dataset on [GitHub](https://github.com/firstlookmedia/climate-and-punishment-data). Following the project’s launch, we hosted a press call to offer training to local and national journalists who were interested in utilizing the data in their own reporting projects.

Local journalists can easily use the map to search their area and get a sense not only of what kinds of climate risks prisoners in their area face — but also simply where prisons are located. For journalists who are looking into a specific incident of climate impact on a prison, the risk ratings for individual prisons can deepen their analysis. For journalists watching as a storm or wildfire approaches their area, the map can help them get a sense of what prisons are in its path and what kind of vulnerabilities are built in.

The stories, too, were meant to provide a comprehensive overview of the range of issues related to floods, wildfires, and heat prisons across the U.S. face. Our analysis provides a foundation for other reporters first digging into how the climate might impact people who are incarcerated.

Finally, our methodology and presentation could be applied to other types of facilities, such as elder care facilities or homeless shelters. We’re aware of at least one team of journalists that is in the process of repurposing our methodology.

Project links: