Locked into Emissions: How Mass Incarceration Contributes to Climate Change

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Social Currents

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The phenomenon of mass incarceration has dramatically altered the economic and infrastructural landscape of the United States. These changes have numerous implications regarding the use of fossil fuels, which are the single largest contributor to climate change. The present study argues that mass incarceration creates three social patterns that result in significant increases in industrial emissions. (1) Mass incarceration incentivizes further industrial development through the construction of new prisons and the continued maintenance of existing prisons to house prisoners. (2) The needs of the millions of individuals currently incarcerated in the United States incentivize industrial expansion through the production of goods and materials used inside prisons. (3) Incarcerated individuals are being used to reduce the cost of labor, which expands economic growth. We construct several fixed-effects panel regression models with robust standard errors predicting industrial emissions for U.S. states from 1997 to 2016 to assess how increases in the number of individuals in U.S. state, federal, and private prisons is correlated with industrial emissions over time. We find that increases in incarceration within states are associated with increases in industrial emissions, and that increases in incarceration lead to a more tightly coupled association between gross domestic product per capita and industrial emissions.


© The Southern Sociological Society 2020 Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions DOI: 10.1177/2329496520974006

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