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In Copyright


The overlap between prisoner vulnerability and disasters in the United States is undeniable. During 2020 and 2021, the United States endured a series of natural hazards such as wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, many of which exposed the country’s 2.1 million inmates to additional risks and compounded the danger posed by COVID-19. Yet policymakers and scholars are only beginning to appreciate the centrality and magnitude of disaster risk management for the millions of people currently held in penal institutions around the country. Unsurprisingly, the production of “lessons learned” documents that follow in the aftermath of disasters overlook how prisoner vulnerability is legally produced and inequitably distributed beyond individual disasters affecting individual prisons.

In this paper, we propose that these vulnerabilities and actual harm were neither accidental nor unforeseeable; rather, we argue that inmates are victims of interwoven “normal” rules, policies, and institutions, as well as long-standing, cultural narratives surrounding natural hazards and carceral processes. Our paper is unique in that we analyze problems of law, cultural narratives, policy, and practice as problems of “risk thinking” in the United States. Specifically, we focus on the development of, and relationship between, risk thinking in U.S. criminal justice and disaster management frameworks over the last 80 years.

Using this research, we argue that: (a) in the discourses and practices of criminal justice, prisoners fall in the cracks between scattered conceptions of risk and vulnerability on the one hand and the narrow and inelastic notions of risk and vulnerability on the other; (b) disaster-risk in prisons should not be studied in isolation from conceptions of disaster-risk applicable to “free” society; (c) prisoners have special vulnerabilities that require more and distinct protections than the rest of society; and (d) this goal is frustrated by the very structure of risk management described in (a).

We attempt this feat in two ways: first, we chart how officials, experts, legislation, and cultural narratives have shaped risk thinking in relation to crime and natural hazards. Second, we show how risk thinking in these areas, and the associated governance of prisons and disasters, ignores and thereby deepens vulnerabilities to hazards for prisoners, as well as correctional staff and communities. Given the nationwide mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, our paper offers timely insights into the plight of incarcerated peoples caught between these regimes. It also suggests that, despite the unique dangers of carceral life and the popular belief that prisoners exist outside of society, social vulnerability beyond prison walls often hinges on our ability to transform vulnerability within them.

Publication Title

Stanford Environmental Law Journal

First Page