Cory Booker Gets the Link Between Climate Change and Prisons

Senator Cory Booker on stage during the Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice.
Photo: Getty

There’s not much hype right now around Senator Cory Booker becoming president, but he deserves a lot more attention than he’s gotten. That’s because when it comes to the intersection of the environment and racism, at least, he’s got it covered.

His climate change plan is centered around justice, and he’s released a plan to remove all lead pipes in the U.S. He was one of six candidates to show up for the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice last week and one of three at a forum put on by formerly incarcerated people held last month. Incarcerated people are some of the Americans most impacted by the climate crisis. Booker is thinking about them and how he fix this injustice if he makes it to the White House, though he’s still working on a specific plan.

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The people in jails and prisons are often an afterthought during climate disasters. When Hurricane Michael was headed toward Florida last year, prisons within the evacuation zone didn’t move the people living there until after the hurricane hit their facilities. Prison officials in Florida were more proactive this year when Hurricane Dorian approached, but there have been too many instances where incarcerated people have been left behind. During a brutal heat wave this summer, some at New York’s Rikers Island went without air conditioning. These types of injustices may only become more common as climate change fuels even scarier weather events.

After the Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice last week, I asked Booker how he’d prevent this type of abuse and neglect if he were to become president. While he did call my question “awesome” in typical corny Booker fashion, he didn’t offer specifics.

“It’s something that I’m conscious of,” Booker told Earther “and should I be the president of the United States, we will have plans to deal with incarcerated populations.”

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He was quick to mention the awful incident earlier this year when incarcerated people inside a Brooklyn jail were without heat during an extreme cold snap. Booker also brought up many other examples of the injustices vulnerable people face with the climate crisis during the forum itself, making the other candidates who appeared look like noobs.

After answering my question, Booker went on to note that he would especially create plans for incarcerated people who fall under federal authority. I didn’t have time to ask how a Booker White House might also push states to take action to protect their incarcerated populations, but he was clear that issues around justice and equity aren’t “secondary” for him, as he put it.

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In fact, before heading to Orangeburg, South Carolina, for the forum, the senator met with formerly incarcerated people as part of a South Carolina-based re-entry program, the Turning Leaf Project. He said he went to listen to the stories of these individuals who are transitioning into society after spending time behind bars.

“This is an issue that I live, that I feel a sense of urgency on, that if I’m president of the United States I’ll make sure that not only do we deal with incarcerated people during times of crisis, but I think we can, as a country, make ourselves safer if we reduce our prison population,” Booker said.

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The U.S. has the most impressive—and I mean that in the worst way possible—prison population in the world. We incarcerate people at the highest rate: 655 per 100,000. Even El Salvador—where my parents are from and which deals with severe poverty and violence—has fewer people incarcerated than the U.S. What’s worse, we don’t just put a shit ton of people behind bars; we force them to work dangerous jobs for little to no pay. In California, for example, the state turns to incarcerated people to help combat worsening wildfires. This hasn’t been enough to appeal to many people though as the state’s been dealing with a shortage in prison labor.

As the climate crisis grows in its urgency, incarcerated people need someone who can create a proper plan to protect them in the face of dangerous weather and unjust labor practices. Think what you will of incarcerated people, but these are human beings with family members who love them. They deserve basic human rights—whether that’s safety from a hurricane, heat when it’s cold, or air conditioning when the heat gets unbearable, impacts that could become more extreme in a worsening climate crisis.

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Booker is willing to take a stand. What about everyone else?

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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