Earlier this year, a prisoner with severe mental illness died in an overheated cell at Rikers Island, the biggest jail in New York City. The exact cause of Jerome Murdough's death is still under investigation, but the temperature in the cell when he was found was at least 100 degrees. His death called renewed attention to a long-standing problem: maintaining reasonable temperatures in jails and prisons.
The high temperatures at some U.S. facilities can form a dangerous — even deadly — combination with the aging inmate population. Medications can make the mentally ill more susceptible to heat, and some prison guards say it's not safe for them either.
Dr. Susi Vassallo grew up in Texas, so she's not afraid of heat. But the physician and NYU medical school professor still remembers her reaction when she stood in an un-air-conditioned prison cell one summer.
"When you closed the ... doors, they had just little dots in 'em, which provided any ventilation from the outside," she said. "It was, even after five minutes ... it was absolutely stifling — it was inconceivable to live there 23 hours a day, day after day."
Vassallo is an expert on heat-related illnesses who is often called to testify in lawsuits about temperatures in jails and prisons. She said that for most people those conditions are uncomfortable, but that those with some health conditions — including high blood pressure and diabetes, or those taking certain medications — can be much more sensitive.
For those prisoners, exposure to heat can lead to long-term health consequences or death. And the numbers of inmates prone to this sensitivity, particularly the elderly and the mentally ill, have been growing.
Prisoners' rights lawyers and others have been arguing, literally for decades, about what constitutes a reasonable temperature. One lawyer, Mercedes Montagnes, filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the heat index — a calculation of heat and humidity — on Louisiana's death row not go above 88 degrees. A judge agreed, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate, and ordered air conditioning installed, but that's on hold as the state appeals the decision.
Montagnes said prisoners have a right to reasonable temperatures and can't escape the heat the way unincarcerated Americans would.
"Those individuals have the ability to go to a freezer, to get cold water, to go to a mall, to go to a movie theater ... to take action in order to mitigate the effect of the heat on them," she said.
The argument for air-conditioning prisons has found allies in some unlikely places. Last year, a group of prison guards from Texas joined a lawsuit against the state's Department of Corrections.
Lance Lowry, a former prison guard in Texas who now works with the guards' union, says the corrections officers have many of the same heat-sensitive health conditions as prisoners — obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, even mental illness.
"Officers frequently suffer from heat cramps and a lot of heat illnesses," Lowry said.
He says prisoners are harder to manage in the heat, too — there are more fights and more psychiatric emergencies.
Texas is among several states facing lawsuits over temperatures in its correctional facilities — of the more than 150,000 prison beds in the state, only about 550 are climate-controlled. Because of that litigation, state officials wouldn't talk on the record, but the state corrections department said in a statement that it is trying to mitigate the high temperatures. Those efforts include purchasing more than $50,000 in industrial-grade cooling fans to test at seven facilities.
Former Texas warden Keith Price, now a professor of criminology and sociology at West Texas A&M University, said that it's important to accommodate heat-sensitive prisoners, but that inmates also need to acknowledge that prison is not a five-star hotel.
"You know, they don't get to go get a cheeseburger whenever they want to, either," Price said. "So, I mean, you know there's a certain amount of things that you give up when you become incarcerated."
Despite a public outcry that resulted in more than a half-million petition signatures and a personal appeal by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Arturo, Argentina's "sad bear," has been deemed too old to migrate to Canada.
As we reported on Saturday, Arturo the polar bear, dubbed the "world's saddest animal" lost his enclosure mate two years ago and appears to have fallen into a deep depression. Pictures of the animal moping around his habitat at the Mendoza Zoo attracted international concern and launched a petition to have him moved to a facility in Winnipeg.
But the Mendoza Zoo says at 28 (some sources say 29), Arturo is just "too old" to be sedated and moved.
"The director of Mendoza zoo in western Argentina, Gustavo Pronotto, said that moving him would be a risk.
"'Arturo is close to his caretakers,' Mr Pronotto told Associated Press news agency. 'We just want everyone to stop bothering the bear.'
"A panel of vets in Argentina also decided that keeping him in Argentina was the best option."
As the Middle East froths with blood — from Iraq to Syria to the Gaza Strip — a commemorative set of three stamps depicting Syrian President Bashar Assad may not seem hugely relevant.
But these pieces of paper tell us much about the power struggles behind the slaughter in Syria. Issued this week to commemorate Assad's victory in the country's recent presidential elections, they are the latest in a long line of postal projections of orderly power over chaos.
However, the election he commemorates was a poll in which no one in rebel-held areas could vote, and oversees a postal system that couldn't deliver a letter to those places, either.
It's not just Assad who uses this kind of propaganda. Large chunks of his country have fallen under the control of the ferocious extremists now known as the Islamic State. They tweeted a picture of a building in the city of Raqqa with a sign that reads: "The civilian post office of the city of Raqqa."
The picture was cited as evidence of the Islamic State having a postal service, but a resident there who uses the nickname Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, because he's afraid of the extremists, says the picture is a lie.
"We haven't had postal service for a year," he says.
But the mere act of issuing the stamps is a tactic to enhance legitimacy, an attempt by Assad to strengthen his claim to be a legitimate leader ruling over a functioning state.
It's a strategy that dates back to the early days of the mail in Syria. The first stamps were printed in 1863, writes Donald M. Reid, in the Journal of Contemporary History. Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire then, so it had Turkish stamps. These were decorated with calligraphy and Arabesque patterns, likely in accordance with Islamic tradition of non-representative art.
But when the empire was shaken by World War I, which would eventually finish it off, there was a change in tack. Stamps suddenly depicted military victories and even the sultan himself.
In the great colonial carve-up of the region that followed the empire's end, Syria fell under the control of France. The French adorned their stamps with images of Syrian scenery and monuments — as well as some telling hints about the future.
On one, the pretty port of Alexandretta was overstamped with the word "ALAWITE" in French and Arabic. In an effort to subdue the angry country, France split the turf into four areas - including one for the Muslim Alawite sect. The French also recruited the sect disproportionately into the army, hoping they would counterbalance the rebellious Sunnis. Many historians trace a line between the influence the sect gained during this period and the rise to power of the Alawite Assad family.
Syria won independence in 1946 and experienced a series of military coups, the last of which brought Hafez Assad — father of the current president — to power in 1971. Assad was an air force commander but in every one of his stamps, he appears in civilian clothing to "enhance his legitimacy," writes Reid.
And then came the son, Bashar Assad, who has led the country since his father's death in 2000 and presided over a brutal war that's now in its fourth year and left the country in ruins.
His opponents have drawn him as a butcher and a devil, while the stamps are an attempt to counterbalance those images. Assad is portrayed in front of a church, bolstering a role he often plays as a protector of minorities. On another stamp, he draws on an image beloved of Arab strongmen and seeks to rebut the idea that he faces a broad rebellion: it shows a crowd of happy, representative citizens dwarfed by the authoritative face of their leader.
Here in southeastern Virginia, our biggest city, Norfolk, is saddled with an unwanted claim to fame. As The Washington Post has reported, Norfolk is the place "where normal tides have risen 1.5 feet over the past century and the sea is rising faster than anywhere else on the East Coast."
NPR notes that the Norfolk area "is particularly vulnerable because the land is sinking as sea levels are rising."
Scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science here at the College of William and Mary predict, according to the Post article, that "if current trends hold, by the end of this century, the sea in Norfolk would rise by 5.5 feet or more."
That's a daunting vision of the future for us locally. Will parts of Norfolk need to be abandoned? Will raising buildings and building floodgates make an appreciable difference? Where would the money come from for such work? How will people's lives be impacted?
As we frequently discuss here at 13.7, human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change is a global problem. And this week, after reading an article by the anthropologist Peter Rudiak-Gould in the August issue of Current Anthropology, "Climate Change and Accusation: Global Warming and Local Blame in a Small Island State," I have new appreciation for the scale of the problem faced by people living far from Norfolk.
Rudiak-Gould focuses on the Marshall Islands, a chain of low-lying coral atolls and islands located in the northern Pacific Ocean and part of Micronesia. (The Marshall Islands are best known to most Americans for the Bikini Atoll disaster brought about by U.S. nuclear testing in 1954).
Over 60,000 people live in the Marshall Islands now and the forecast for their future is not good. The threat of rising sea levels presents, in Rudiak-Gould's words, "severe, quite possibly insurmountable, threats to the continued habitation of the Marshallese homeland."
Wanting to understand how climate change has already affected these islands, I contacted Rudiak-Gould by email earlier this week. He told me that drought and flooding are the two worst impacts so far:
"Crops of breadfruit, pandanus, and other staples have withered. Waterborne illnesses like hepatitis have risen. Flooding has hit the country's capital city, Majuro, several times recently. The capital city is densely populated and houses reach right up to the edge of the ocean, making people more vulnerable. One of the more distressing damages caused by flooding is the erosion of coastal graveyards, which have great cultural and spiritual significance. Of course, the cause of these events is more complicated than climate change, but the evidence points to climate change being a major contributing factor."
Rudiak-Gould's research isn't primarily focused on climate change itself, though. He seeks to understand how the Marshallese Islanders — among whom he has done fieldwork at intervals since 2003 — respond to these threats, of which they are very well aware.
How do the islanders think about the issue of blame? Do they engage in industrial blame, in which Western, developed and industrialized countries are held to be at fault? Or do they adopt a perspective of universal blame that, in a "radically different moral framing," puts blame on all of us collectively — even Marshall Islanders themselves?
Surprisingly, at least to me, the evidence points to a narrative of universal blame, instead of one in which the "big countries" (as islanders call the industrialized nations) are called out.
The average Marshall Islands resident has a carbon footprint less than 1/10th that of the average American. Yet the grassroots (that is to say, nongovernmental) viewpoint manifests itself as a subtype of universal blame that is heavy on self-blame. Based on his own surveys and interviews, as well as information publicly available in the media, Rudiak-Gould offers example after example of self-blame discourse. Repeatedly, the Marshallese lamented their own bad behavior that contributes to climate change, including driving cars and running air conditioners.
Given the heavily colonialist history of these islands (involving not only the U.S. but also Japan and Germany), why should Marshall Islanders be so ready to take responsibility when, objectively speaking, the bulk of the blame falls on countries like ours?
After considering and dismissing a number of other explanations, Rudiak-Gould concludes that the answer can be found in the Marshallese perspective on cultural decline, the idea that the local culture is deteriorating as people increasingly leave traditional practices behind in favor of foreign ways. Rudiak-Gould writes in Current Anthropology:
"The fact that foreigners, too, contribute to climate change is not denied, it is simply ignored, for it is irrelevant to what Marshallese discourse cares so dearly about, which is locals' own loyalty or disloyalty toward tradition."
One passage of Rudiak-Gould's in the article really brought things together for me:
"Where an industrial blamer might see only needless self-flagellation, the sad spectacle of a victimized society turning accusation inward, Marshallese activists see an opportunity to turn climate change into the final proof of modernity's folly, a powerful inspiration to revitalize older ways."
Here we see the very heart of an anthropological approach, in that the ethnographer (Rudiak-Gould) listens to and works to frame the points of view of his informants (the Marshallese), especially where they diverge from the narrative of his own culture: Industrial blame is more readily embraced in the U.S. than is universal blame.
In our email exchange, I asked Rudiak-Gould about the impact of his work: How does anthropological research like his help all of us us think about anthropogenic climate change?
"I would say the big message is that climate change is not just a scientific, technical, or environmental issue. It is a human issue — it is caused by humans and it harms humans. It is important to remember the impact that climate change is having on non-human species too, but if we think about the issue only in terms of polar bears, for instance, we won't understand the full extent of the issue. It is a human issue, and therefore a social and cultural issue. It is happening to us, now, here (not them, in the future, somewhere far away)."
"The Marshall Islands illustrates that, but even more so it is important to think about how the weather has changed in *your* place, and how your own lives will be affected in years to come. If we're trying to get people engaged with the issue of climate change, it's important to talk about things that they already value. For instance, in Canada, strange winters recently have people worried about the ice hockey season. Is the hockey season as important, say, the drought in the northern Marshall Islands? No. But it's something people care about and it's a way in. You have to start where people are."
You have to start where people are. I'm starting near Norfolk, where things look bad, but not as bad as they do in some other parts of the world.
When we look hard at what's happening for each of us locally in terms of altered weather patterns or coastlines or patterns of flora and fauna, and share that information, the global picture starts to come together. The idea is not to play the blame game, but rather to focus on how various cultures and individuals process the frightening realities of a climate-change-suffused future, and to determine what can be done to alter the course we are on.
The number of people signing up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act was about 5 million on April 19, the end of the open-enrollment period.
Though media coverage of the numbers has faded since then, a new report by ProPublica shows there have been 1 million transactions since then — an unexpectedly high number.
- Charles Ornstein, senior reporter for ProPublica covering health care and the pharmaceutical industry. He tweets @charlesornstein.