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Inmates, including children, suffer dire effects in prison cells filled with smoke: 'Unable to pick up and flee'

The prison relied on generator power for some basic functions.

The prison relied on generator power for some basic functions.

Photo Credit: iStock

This year's fire season has flooded the United States with smoke. Many people are staying indoors, buying air filters, and wearing masks outside to stay safe — but not everyone has those options. The cells of a state prison in Northern California recently filled with smoke from a wildfire that also knocked out the institution's power.

What happened?

As reported by The Associated Press, Northern California saw dozens of fires in August, including a group of them called the Smith River Complex. At one point, the flames came within five miles of Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County.

The result was thick smoke that filled the prison for days at the same time that the power went out. Without electricity, the cells had very little ventilation, and the roughly 1,600 inmates were exposed to smoke for over a week.

The prison relied on generator power for some basic functions, according to AP News. However, the prison population spent some time without their usual showers, hot meals, or charging capability for electronic devices.

The entire time, they were stuck "in a cage, unable to move, unable to pick up and flee," as Chesa Boudin told AP News. Boudin is the Executive Director of the Criminal Law & Justice Center at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Why is this a growing issue?

As the world gets hotter and the weather gets harsher, those with the means to relocate will be least affected. Those who either can't afford to leave — or aren't allowed to — will be hit heavily with smoke, dangerously high temperatures, and other disasters.

"We have seen climate-related, and certainly fire-related, impacts on jails and prisons across the globe with an increasing level and severity as climate change has picked up pace," Boudin said. Even children have been affected, like those being held in scorching temperatures at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

As Boudin pointed out, getting prisoners out of harm's way under the current system is challenging. "The logistics involved in transporting those people in a safe way is really hard to fathom," he said.

However, a solution is necessary to protect the rights of American citizens. Being locked up is the lawful penalty for many crimes. The health risks of smoke inhalation are not.

What's being done about the danger?

As AP News reveals, California corrections officials have begun putting plans in place for some of the extreme weather conditions expected to impact the state's prisons. In 2022, they created a Heat Illness Prevention Plan for each prison, including more water, ice, fans, portable cooling units, and shelters. However, more work is needed to address other possible disasters, including fires and floods.

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