A Northern California prison was on generator power for a second week and inmates were handed out masks against unhealthy air after wildfires cut power and choked the remote region with smoke.
dozens of flames ignited by lightning burn for weeks near Oregon, where the largest group, the Smith River Complex, has charred more than 115 square miles (298 square kilometers) of forest.
Last week, the blaze was only about five miles from Pelican Bay State Prison, but firefighters were protecting communities around the maximum-security prison, which houses about 1,600 inmates in Del Norte County, said Dev Khalsa, a fire headquarters spokesman.
“Unfortunately, the smoke blanket was pretty thick,” Khalsa said. According to the authority, the air quality in the coastal region was unhealthy on Wednesday US Air Quality Index.
Persistent smoke entered the Pelican Bay enclosure where Terri Thompson Jackson’s husband Jeffrey Jackson is being held. She was concerned when he coughed during a recent phone conversation.
“I said, ‘Do you need to take a COVID test?’ He said, “No, it’s those wildfires.” “It’s awful,” Thompson Jackson said. Jackson told her the power was out and many inmates were locked in smoky cells with very poor ventilation.
In a Facebook group for loved ones of Pelican Bay inmates, “everyone was wondering, is it safe? Do they need to be evacuated?” said Thompson Jackson.
The prison has never been in direct danger from flames, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said. The power supply can only be restored once the fire has been completely contained, the authority said.
Generator power was expanded last Friday and hot meal service resumed this week. “People can shower normally and items such as hairdressing tools and tablets can now be charged,” agency spokeswoman Tessa Outhyse said in an email.
Fans, air purifiers and masks were also brought, she said. The agency works with health departments and prison medical staff, Outhyse said, and has contracted suppliers who can respond with emergency supplies nationwide.
During emergencies such as wildfires, correctional officers are in regular contact with law enforcement, the fire department and the California governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the Correctional Services said. Facilities with vulnerable populations, such as prisons, state hospitals and veterans’ homes, are following their own safety and evacuation plans with help from the state, said Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the emergency services.
The Correctional Agency said its plan is guided by the National Incident Management System, which provides “consistent policies, management structures and a systematic approach to emergency response” to all federal, state and local response agencies.
A Sacramento County jail was evacuated during flooding earlier this year. In 2021, the massive Dixie fire came very close to the California Correctional Center and High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California, but didn’t require an evacuation, Ferguson said.
“The logistics involved in safely transporting these people is really hard to fathom,” said Chesa Boudin, executive director of the Criminal Law & Justice Center at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. A quarter of Pelican Bay’s inmates are in what is commonly referred to as solitary confinement, which would add to the challenge.
People “in a cage, unable to move, unable to pick themselves up and flee” while inhaling smoke borders on inhumanity and points to a growing problem caused by extreme weather events, Boudin said.
“We have seen climate-related, and certainly fire-related, impacts on prisons and prisons around the world, increasing in magnitude and severity as climate change accelerated,” Boudin said.
This includes excessive heat, he said.
In 2022, California correctional officials implemented a heat illness prevention plan for each of the more than 30 prisons that pursued a “tailored operational response” to extreme temperatures. This includes improved access to water, ice, fans, portable cooling equipment and shelters, such as gymnasiums or chapels.
California inmates are particularly vulnerable to climate hazards such as wildfires, flooding and rising temperatures because Correctional Services prisons are “located in or near remote areas, have aging infrastructure and populations, and are overcrowded,” a Study published in June conducted by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.