Lauren Elizabeth Tirado
The millions of acres that span the Western United States face violent destruction from forest fires and other natural disasters that have plagued the landscape for decades. The combined effects of the climate crisis and rising population levels allow forest fires to mercilessly burn through California, Arizona, Oregon, and beyond. Firefighter response teams are at the heart of this disaster relief. The very people that these fires affect – let alone the greater American public – seldom recognize who serves on these teams and the lifesaving impact of their work. Prison fire camps (PFCs) make up as much as one-third of firefighting units in states like California and are responsible for saving communities, homes, and lives. Prison fire camps represent a unique, albeit pervasive, form of prison labor in which the expendability and stigmatization of incarcerated lives enter the public realm. Incarcerated people (and prisons themselves) are commonly viewed as external to society. They are purposefully removed from society so “justice” can be served. Therefore, PFCs create an inherent paradox. Fire camps are not a place over there: incarcerated firefighters must physically and figuratively reenter society to be of service. How, then, can incarcerated firefighters that are entrusted to protect the community also be deemed unsafe to live within it (The Guardian, 2020)?
In this essay, I investigate the contradictions of prison fire camps using testimony from former and current incarcerated firefighters. I combine these accounts with the history of prison labor in order to explore the extent to which PFCs rehabilitate their members. This analysis is complicated by the exploitative and dangerous conditions of firefighting work. Exploring the stories of incarcerated firefighters and the realities of their work reveals the instability of the so-called “carceral identity” and the risk of bodily and psychological injury resulting from PFCs. I argue that the real and potential harms of prison fire camps can be traced to longstanding ideas about “rightful” punishment and what criminals “deserve.” The likelihood of harm from prison labor – especially fire camp work – is critically juxtaposed with the ways society justifies this harm as a penalty for the moral injuries associated with deviance. I believe that prison fire camps possess both transformational and destructive properties that can inform new, rehabilitative models of reform for incarceration within a stagnant political architecture unwilling to abolish it.
Good at the “Right Thing”
The life-threatening dangers of fighting fires and the prejudice of the carceral system culminate in a culture of shame and frequent injury to the body and psyche. The work of incarcerated firefighters is, indeed, a matter of life-or-death. In 2022, four incarcerated firefighters died in the line of duty in California, including Matthew Beck, who was killed by a falling tree; Frank Anaya, who died from a chainsaw accident; and Anthony Colacino, who suffered a fatal heart attack on a training hike (Uenuma, 2020). The crews face erupting forest fires and looming uncertainty about their safety on a daily basis. Fire camp crews often arrive “first on the scene” to carve out vegetation to prevent further destruction of local communities and the natural landscape without proper compensation, protection, or recognition. At the same time, former incarcerated firefighter Adam Azevedo has testified that being part of a fire camp restored his “sense of value” and that saving the lives of two people on the job gave him a “belief in myself that I could be good at something good, good at the right thing.”
Proponents of fire camp programs emphasize their potential benefits and often omit the harsh realities and risks of participation. The mission statements of many fire camps, like that of the South Fork Forest Camp in Oregon, pledge to provide “cost effective, skilled inmate labor” for regional forest fire protection, to promote public safety by holding the incarcerated “accountable for their actions,” and to reduce recidivism by modeling “prosocial behavior” and the “skills of productive citizens” (VanderPyl, 2021). The missions of these programs not only frequently fail to protect incarcerated individuals from the physical and psychological hazards of this work but also leave them vulnerable to a society that refuses to recognize their skills or their contributions to their communities once they are no longer incarcerated.
From 1865 to the Rise of Mass Incarceration
Prison fire camps are a part of a longer history of exploitative labor in prisons, which has a critical connection to the racist roots of American labor and punishment. Prior to emancipation, the American prison system did not exist in the same manner as today. Though institutions of confinement such as penitentiaries or asylums were in use in the 18th and 19th centuries, the establishment of a place of punishment is a newer practice. Public torture and capital punishment pervaded penal culture until 1865, when the 13th Amendment declared slavery and involuntary servitude illegal – except for those convicted of crimes (Browne, 2007). Still, the efforts of many southern states to control and police the Black community, and essentially restore slavery, set the foundation for a new culture of monitoring.
The first Black Codes were passed in 1865 and subjected the Black population to criminal prosecution as a means to exploit them further (Vazquez, 2013). These laws targeted the freedom of Black Americans to own property and to sell goods and pressured them to sign coercive labor contracts (“Constitutional Rights Foundation”). The codes also required Black individuals to carry proof of employment and set strict rules against loitering, breaking curfew, and carrying weapons (Vazquez, 2013). The regulation of Black lives, along with the legal and social pressure to seek employment, forced previously enslaved individuals and their families into convict leasing. Convict leasing allowed white plantation owners to hire prison laborers and to purchase incarcerated Black people to live and to work on their property. Participants paid an average of $25,000 a year in exchange for this controlled labor, which generated significant revenue for the state and for plantation owners (Browne, 2007). Convict leasing was also extremely popular for the building of railroads, which resulted in death rates of up to 45% for the incarcerated laborers of states like South Carolina. It was not until the 1930s that convict leasing was abolished in the United States (Browne, 2007).
Forced labor continued after the “end” of convict leasing through the increased use of chain gangs, which involved bringing incarcerated people to work sites and shackling them together at the ankle while they worked – often at gunpoint – and slept (Browne, 2007). The violent and inhumane conditions of slavery clearly perpetuated throughout a period of supposed reconstruction, and these practices allowed for the monitoring and policing of Black communities to be normalized and enforced within a new context (Vazquez, 2013). Failure to meet these standards or the violation of labor contracts resulted in the arrest, assault, and forced labor of Black individuals. Black children, orphaned or taken from families deemed “unfit to support them” by a judge, were also subjected to unpaid labor positions (“Black Codes,” 2023). The Black Codes provided a weapon of surveillance and criminalization against the Black community and established new norms for dealing with social deviance.
Forcibly removing bad people from society gradually became common practice. Incarceration was not (and is not) possible without deliberate political initiatives and legislative actions that provide the state with a “carceral capacity” to punish through institutions. That is to say, mass incarceration was “not inevitable” despite the linear progression drawn from 1865 to the present day (Schoenfeld, 2018). The notion that specific groups of people “deserve” to be punished, which fueled anti-Black campaigns, was a catalyst for incarceration. Heather Schoenfeld effectively describes the development of the “carceral state,” or the comprehensive network of people, police, courts, and carceral institutions that administer social control. She proposes that racial and partisan conflicts encourage political action that ultimately offer the state the ability to punish. Political action creates the legitimacy for a collective prejudice, and thus a “governing ideology” establishes incarceration as “the” appropriate consequence for crime (Schoenfeld, 2018). I wish to underscore the cyclical nature of this relationship. Choosing incarceration as an appropriate consequence is, indeed, a choice. Based on this decision, the state incurs an obligation to provide for the basic human rights of incarcerated people – an obligation continually broken through prison labor exploitation.
Prison Labor and PFCs: Cutting Financial and Moral Corners
Of the approximately 1.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, about 65% report working in prison labor programs and projects. This workforce, nearly 800,000 people, has little to no control over their work assignments, cannot afford basic necessities such as soap or phone call access, and face an alarming lack of safety standards in places of work or rest (University of Chicago, 2022). In fact, according to Jaron Browne, incarcerated individuals are not protected by minimum wage laws and do not possess the right to organize or collectively bargain. Browne also quotes Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix, who invited Nike to “ take a look at their transportation costs and labor costs” because the state could “offer [competitive] prison inmate labor”’ (Browne, 2007). The pursuit of profit builds on the active dehumanization and perceived expendability of incarcerated lives.
Prison labor varies between institutions across the country but falls within four broad categories. The first three occur on prison grounds and include: “regular” prison jobs (e.g. custodial, maintenance, groundskeeping, and food service positions), jobs for state-owned businesses or “correctional industries,” and jobs for private businesses (Prison Policy Initiative, 2017). The economic incentives for prison labor are paramount considering that prison industries and private companies can pay incarcerated people negligible wages with almost no backlash. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “non-industry” jobs in states such as Alabama, Florida, and Texas pay their workers nothing for several types of labor. Other states such as Illinois, Idaho, and Alaska, pay about one dollar per hour, with only slight increases to about two dollars per hour for state-owned businesses in states like Delaware and Hawaii (Prison Policy Initiative, 2017). Although private companies widely utilize prison labor, this work is largely unknown to the public. In California alone, there are 33 prisons in which incarcerated people operate dairy farms and slaughterhouses, perform dental lab jobs, and work in shoe, clothing, and household product manufacturing. In Arizona, all “able-bodied” incarcerated people are required to perform various types of labor during their sentences, which creates a workforce of approximately 45,000 people at the disposal of carceral institutions (Feldman, 2022). Though activism surrounding prison reform has recently brought more attention to private companies’ and corporations’ use of prison labor, a lack of political motivation to end or regulate this work prevails.
The final category of prison labor describes jobs outside the facility. This includes work release programs, off-site community service, and even prison fire camps. This category of prison labor is typically designated for “low-risk” individuals, often with a few years or months left on their sentence (Prison Policy Initiative, 2017). Work release programs vary significantly between states but generally involve labor agreements between prison facilities and outside businesses in manual labor and construction, among others (Grupp, 1963). Such programs are meant to facilitate networking and job opportunities for incarcerated people once they are released. Like other forms of community service, work release programs involve incarcerated individuals leaving the prison and reentering society. This movement out of the institution is crucial because the ‘othering’ of the institutionalized – the erasure of the place over there – is eliminated.
The effectiveness of these programs is still highly contested. A 2015 study completed by William Bales and the National Institute of Justice showed that work release participants in the Florida Department of Corrections were “five times more likely” than non-workers to find employment after prison release. Work release participants also have “significantly lower recidivism” rates as measured by a new crime, felony offense, or conviction. However, the recidivism rate for work release participants only decreased 4-10% when compared to non-work release participants (Bales et al., 2015). The ambiguity of these results does little to demonstrate the effectiveness of such programs and highlights the need for more research on the effects of prison labor.
Even less information exists for PFCs. Prison fire camps and work release programs are very similar in their exploitative potential, variability in eligibility requirements, and lack of consistent guidelines. The public perception of PFCs, however, is quite different from other forms of prison labor. The work done by incarcerated firefighters (IFFs) is not only more visible than its counterparts but also strikes the public as more heroic. Firefighters occupy a position of respect for the danger they face in protecting the community, a feeling not typically extended to non-incarcerated factory, construction, or custodial workers. This tension between the “deviance” and courage of IFFs is what further differentiates their work from other forms of labor outside the carceral institution. IFFs are among us and serve alongside those we, in theory, deem trustworthy to protect us from harm. IFFs work in our communities, live outside our communities, and battle our disasters.
The Carceral Identity
The palatability of incarceration for the general public resides on three main principles: erasure, punishment, and spectacle. While seemingly contradictory, these principles help explain why society can actively disregard the harm of mass incarceration and its failure to prevent recidivism. The notion of visibility builds a grounding framework for these principles. Without sending ‘them’ away, those that commit crimes are too close to ‘us’, too close to our homes, our schools, our lives. Colossal barbed-wire buildings set far away from polite society are designed to fix the issue of proximity. If they are there, our communities are safe. Beyond that, we ensure that “offenders” will be punished, isolated, and unhappy in the pursuit of atonement. Issues of prison labor, inhumane and unhealthy living conditions, and the absence of comprehensive rehabilitation programs in institutions are explained away because they “deserve” to be punished. That is to say, the risk of physical or mental injury while serving a sentence is a sanctioned part of imprisonment itself.
The cyclical act of sentencing and punishment contributes to the spectacle of incarceration: bad people go to prison because they are too dangerous to be in the community. These principles create a broader carceral identity, “what it means to be a ‘criminal’” (Feldman, 2022). This categorization, while successful in harnessing control and public perception, is still highly dynamic and fragile. The perspective that the carceral system works for the people, the innocent, is at the heart of the carceral practice, because it is this misunderstanding that allows the system to work for itself. The visibility of incarcerated firefighting raises questions about this assumption. How, then, can we explain the rise of prison fire camps, which largely contradict the carceral system by being visible and in close proximity to the public?
Becoming an IFF: Exposure and Control
Like all professional firefighters, PFC crews go through extensive training in order to participate in firefighting work. PFC crews are sent to training facilities and are taught first aid, fire containment, debris removal, vegetation techniques, reforestation, and how to relocate wild animals. During the off season, crews work in recreational parks, build bridges, paint buildings, and maintain natural grounds to prevent future fires (VanderPyl, 2021). The eligibility requirements for IFFs are generally consistent between institutions, but these guidelines are vague and contradictory. In California, incarcerated individuals must have five years or less left on their sentences, have never been convicted of a violent offense, and must score below a certain threshold on an internal classification exam such that they are considered “low- or medium-security” (Goodman, 2012). According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), while people convicted of “level 3 and 4 crimes” such as rape and murder are not eligible for the program, people convicted of “level 1 and 2 crimes,” such as drug trafficking, property crimes, vehicular manslaughter, and even armed robbery, are. Ultimately, the decision is up to “some interpretation by classification staff,” and the choice appears to be based on individual circumstances and the discretion of program staff rather than public safety (Goodman, 2014).
California’s fire camp systems are also known to ease eligibility restrictions as the demand for firefighters increases (Goodman, 2012). This further calls into question the minimum qualifications for IFFs and exposes the self-interestedness of these programs and the perceived expendability of incarcerated lives. Of course, these arguments are countered by the typical claims of prison labor proponents: prison labor is an opportunity to give back to and repay the community, atone for wrongdoing, and engage in work that “helps people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society” (Shemkus, 2015). This analysis will show that IFFs are indeed taught useful skills – suitable and exceeding those necessary for careers in firefighting – but that PFCs are not focused on rehabilitation or reducing recidivism.
I argue that the ethics of prison fire camps do not perfectly correspond to the binary of “right or wrong” associated with other forms of carceral exploitation. We must recognize the benefits to this work because incarcerated firefighters attest to these benefits, and uplifting their stories is central to the cause of prison labor reform. Therefore, the positive aspects of this work are best described by those that worked in the camps. Their first-hand experiences reveal the transformative – yet immensely inadvertent – potential of fire camps to foster personal growth for its participants. It is important to note that PFCs nevertheless pose serious risks which may eclipse the benefits of participation.
Amika Mota is a formerly incarcerated person and firefighter who served in one of California’s many PFCs. In her article, I Saved Lives as an Incarcerated Firefighter. To California, I Was Just Cheap Labor, Mota reflects on the dangers and vulnerabilities she endured during the two and a half years that she spent serving as an IFF. Mota fought wildland fires, residential fires, and even responded to car crashes in the community. As a lead engineer of her crew, Mota earned an astonishing 37 cents an hour, for a total of 56 dollars per month. She and her team were professionally trained to respond to accidents and battle dangerous bushfires, from fire containment tactics to using the jaws of life to save victims. Mota recalls being dispatched to the scene of a violent car crash in which a vehicle drove off the road in the area surrounding her prison. Upon arrival, she met the victims: a correctional officer and their daughter who was injured in the crash. While preparing the child for airlift to the hospital, Mota was “moved to have a small child in my arms after so long away from my own kids” (Mota, 2020).
In another instance, her team was called on Christmas Eve to the home of another correctional officer. She and her team fought the fire and tried tirelessly to save photographs and presents left inside the burning house. Mota admits, “I am proud to have served on my firefighting crew – the experience gave me a chance to grow as a person and a first responder… I didn’t fight fires for the money. I didn’t do it to have time shaved off my sentence… I did it because it made me feel like I was contributing to my state and a part of the community” (Mota, 2020).
In her 15 months of ethnographic research in Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program, Lindsay Feldman investigated the motivations and consequences of working in PFCs and met several IFFs with stories like Amika Mota’s. She became a certified wildland firefighter and fought 30 fires alongside three Arizona State Forestry prison squads (Feldman, 2017). After a three-day long mission, an IFF (referred to as Sammy) entered a local restaurant in the rural community they were serving. She recalls the mundane appearance of the crew, who neither expected any reward nor carried any badge of honor for their service – except for the dark soot and debris left on their clothing. Suddenly, a young boy ran from a family sitting at a nearby table and hugged Sammy’s leg, exclaiming, “I want to be like you when I grow up!” (Feldman, 2017). The restaurant filled with applause, and the crew laughed at the ironic encounter. Sammy, who was then serving a nine-year sentence for possession of methamphetamines, turned to Feldman tearfully and admitted, “that just healed me” (Feldman, 2017).
As part of her study of Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program, Feldman looked closely at the visibility of incarcerated firefighters. She asked a fellow crewmate how he had “adjusted to coming in contact with homeowners and other individuals on a daily basis,” to which he replied:
At first it felt like they [the public] were staring at me. I was paranoid. It felt like all eyes were on me… I would hang back behind [the crew boss], watching him and how he’d interact, kinda slinking in the background you know? I didn’t want anyone to look at me ‘cause I was worried what they would think. But then I realized it wasn’t bad. They wanted to make eye contact with me or talk to me. It was just that they were seeing me. I was being seen like a human being again. (Feldman, 2017)
These sentiments not only describe the sense of shame and insecurity characteristic of the carceral identity, but they also reflect the role of the community in facilitating it. The relief and excitement of this interviewee to feel “human again” demonstrates how dangerous and totalizing criminalization is to the psyche.
One IFF admitted to Feldman that he felt as if he needed to act tough and “big” all the time while at the prison. He explained that this defensive performance actually made him feel “smaller” and “insignificant” over time. After joining his fire squad, he finally felt like he was “a part of something bigger” (Feldman, 2017). Another crewmember shared similar sentiments about the transformations associated with firefighting work:
Just getting away from the yard changes everything. You get to think about what you want. [pointing to the vista] … That’s freedom. That’s what I am working towards. I am up here, experiencing these trees, this green, this smell, and I think about how I never did this before. I never took my sons here. I never did, but now I can. I’m figuring out that this is who I am… I wouldn’t get to do this if I never left the yard. (Feldman, 2017)
The stories of Amika Mota, Sammy, and the other members of fire crews exemplify the issue with the binary ethical designations of prison labor. Would Mota feel the same pride if her work was within a prison textile factory? Would Sammy have felt “healed” without meeting the boy in the restaurant? Would the crewmember from the IWP squad feel moved to introduce his children to the vistas of the Arizona mountains? Is introspection of this magnitude possible within the traditional methods of prison labor? No. I argue that unfavorable perspectives of prison fire camps – as a microcosm for penal labor in general – in many ways differ from the perspectives of those that experience it. The experiences of incarcerated people are central to the ethical arguments of prison labor, and for future considerations of reform.
To provide an outside perspective, Feldman also interviewed several local homeowners who interacted with the crews. A common topic of discussion was rehabilitation, as “several mentioned or alluded to the concept [of rehabilitation] in their descriptions of what the crews do,” and were happy to see rehabilitation “working” (Feldman, 2017). Since these interactions took place outside of the carceral setting, criminal categorization – a part of the spectacle of punishment – was broken. Since IFFs supply a tangible benefit to the community, their identity as an IFF supersedes that of a “criminal” and their rehabilitation appears to be working.
Within a total institution, prison labor will always feel like punishment due to the physical and social branding of the carceral identity (Feldman, 2017). Even seemingly quotidian actions like the standardization of clothing, mealtimes, access to the outdoors, and surveillance have exceptional and catastrophic effects on individual identity. Since attempts to relinquish carceral identity is punishable in prisons (i.e., revolting or refusing to assimilate), homogeneity becomes central to the carceral regime. The “classificatory processes” of incarceration were readily apparent to Feldman as well. Her work demonstrates that the physical and symbolic distancing from the institution complicates issues of identity for IFFs. While many PFCs house crews away from the prison, Arizona camps are often housed (separately) on the prison yard. Their experiences amplify the potential benefits of removal from the carceral setting because they are constantly present and not present within it. IFFs overwhelmingly agree that while fire camps fail to eradicate the stigmatization of incarceration, they prefer their time in fire camps because they temporarily uplift their physical and emotional well-being (Feldman, 2017).
Fire camps possess transformative potential because they are “unique social worlds” in which rules – that perpetuate suppression – are bent and “played with,” but not because the IFFs are in any ways different or atypical from incarcerated individuals that remain within the institution (Goodman, 2014). The fragility and hostility of the prison regime requires punishment to maintain order, an act of self-preservation according to Marx (Tunick, 1992). This does not, however, translate to PFCs because its structure is not conducive to constant totalizing punishment. That being said, we cannot forget that PFCs are emotionally and physically arduous, and the compensation for this work is minimal. The potential for rehabilitation exists, as Mota and others have shown, but I argue that this is largely an unintended consequence of fire camps. Providing incarcerated people with opportunities to leave the carceral setting and regain a sense of freedom and autonomy is a positive step towards rehabilitative prison reform. However, PFCs are not completely free of systemic problems.
The Price to Be Paid
How would the interaction between Sammy and the young boy in the restaurant change if the family had known he was incarcerated? Perhaps the family would have had reservations about their child interacting with him, or maybe Sammy would not have felt comfortable entering the restaurant to begin with. The perception of Sammy as a hero, despite the acts of selflessness and courage he and his team displayed in their work for the community, would very likely be tainted. Heroism is associated with moral purity, and prejudices against incarcerated people come into conflict with their heroic acts. In an interview with Democracy Now! Martin Vinson recalls when one of his crewmates was severely injured by a boulder while fighting the Snell Fire in Napa County, California. In the middle of the night, air and emergency support is not available, and the crew was stranded at the edge of a creek. Desperate to find safety, Vinson dropped his fire pack and carried his crewmate up the mountain through extremely steep and dangerous terrain.
When asked if he considers himself a hero, Martin smiled but replied that he just wants to “be there for someone when they need him.” With two police officers looming immediately behind him, Martin agreed with the interviewer that he and his crew are “risking their lives” as IFFs: “That’s exactly what’s going on, everything we do… no one is really promised to come back” (Democracy Now, 2018). Even after saving his crewmate without any aid or security, Martin is clearly still perceived as a potential threat – even at PFCs. The risk of injury and death is a stark reality for IFFs. The dangers of firefighting do not discern between an incarcerated person or a fire department firefighter, and yet being confronted with making the ultimate sacrifice is weighed differently depending on the perceived moral character of the person.
Typical firefighting shifts in PFCs can last anywhere from 12 to 24 hours with minimal breaks, and at many California camps the days begin with mandatory 2-mile hikes for “fitness”. During active fire emergencies, crews may be deployed for several weeks without returning to their base and spend nights in sleeping bags on the dangerous terrain. Over 1000 IFFs were hospitalized between June 2013 and August 2018, and studies show they are four times as likely to “incur object-induced injuries” including abrasions, breaks, dislocations, and fractures compared to non-incarcerated firefighters. IFFs are also eight times more likely to experience adverse health effects from smoke and particulate inhalation (Vesoulis, 2018). When IFFs seek medical attention from “excruciating” pain, severe poison ivy, broken bones, they are typically given ibuprofen and are seldom taken for x-rays or further testing. Tragically, three IFFs succumbed to injuries in the span of one year as a result of this deliberate indifference while working in the California Conservation Camp Program (Vesoulis, 2018).
Take the case of Shawna Lynn Jones, an incarcerated firefighter working with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Her twelve-woman crew, Malibu 13-3, made up part of the 4,000 incarcerated firefighters distributed across 44 conservation camps in the state of California (Serna and Mejia, 2016). The crew arrived ahead of local or air support at the Mulholland fire in Malibu on February 25th, 2016 (Lowe, 2023). Jones had recently been promoted to the “second saw” position in recognition of her skill and determination (Lowe, 2017). Carrying fifty pounds of equipment on their backs, the women headed towards the flames. Their mission was to “set the line,” which involves clearing the debris and terrain within a six-foot radius of the fire to prevent its spread (Lowe, 2017). This job is exceedingly dangerous, as a shift in the wind or a falling tree can cause the fire to jump or result in serious injury to the firefighters. However, their role is absolutely crucial for containing potential disasters (Lowe, 2017).
The crew needed to hike up sloping ravines full of dry brush and trees to reach the fire’s edge. The loose soil and rocks caused the IFFs to repeatedly slip and to lose their footing while operating their chainsaws and shuffling materials back and forth (Lowe, 2017). The roaring flames engulfed everything in sight, and the mission grew more critical by the second. In the midst of the operation, a large rock fell from 100 feet above and struck Jones in the head. She was evacuated from the scene by helicopter to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Her family was notified, but after being in critical condition for some time, they removed her from life support and she passed away (Serna and Mejia, 2016). Shawna Jones was 22 years old and serving a three-year prison sentence. Jones was known for her absurdist sense of humor, her love of rescuing puppies, and her close relationship with her mom (Lowe, 2023). Like all incarcerated people, she had a life with loved ones, hobbies, goals, and dreams. At the time of her accident, she was scheduled to be released on April 10th, only three weeks later.
Caught in the Crossfire
An officer from a California fire camp describes IFFs as “the hardest working crews you’ll see on a fire.” IFFs are often tasked with “doing hand crews, cutting lines, cutting trees down” while professional firefighters put out the flames with the hose and “at the end of the day are not even dirty” (Goodman, 2012). IFFs and non-incarcerated firefighters often share camps and meals and serve on the same missions. Whereas firefighters earn an average salary of $73,860 dollars per year plus benefits, IFFs earn as little as a dollar an hour, with an increase to two dollars during active fires (Goodman, 2012 and Vesoulis, 2018). Over an entire fire season, IFFs receive about one to two hundred dollars for their work, which is typically used to buy basic necessities like a canteen or hygiene products to use while deployed (Goodman, 2012).
IFFs are rarely eligible to continue firefighting work once they have served their sentences. Until recently, Cal Fire did not hire anyone with a criminal record, even for jobs with the same requirements as PFCs. Pay disparities and barring former prisoners from employment are two major obstacles that reflect the drawbacks of PFCs as means of rehabilitating IFFs. Despite their experience, former IFFs do not qualify for EMT or EMR licenses, another requirement to join a professional crew (Lowe, 2021). Ironically, former IFFs like Alisha Tapia can nevertheless participate in volunteer firefighting with a criminal record (Lowe, 2021).
Efforts by advocacy groups have been partially successful. In September 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Bill AB 2147, which helps IFFs gain access to firefighting jobs (and other careers) after release by expunging their criminal records. Recommendations and character witness letters from fire captains, friends, and family supplement the expungement request, which requires extensive proof of successful participation in the camp (“AB 2147”). Once the IFF petitions their sentencing court for expungement (and if that request is approved), they can seek out career paths that require a state license or a clean criminal record. A modest effort at reform, AB 2147 does not fully solve the issues posed by PFCs. The bill – and comparable efforts to bridge the gap between incarceration and release – do not address the pay disparities in carceral labor, or the countless physical and psychological injuries brought about by the prison regime.
On the Horizon
Expunging the criminal records of IFFs is a remarkable step towards supplying them with the financial and social benefits of rehabilitation. It does, however, call into question the price that incarcerated people must pay to reenter society. Should IFFs risk their lives in fire camps to be worthy of this opportunity? What comparable options can be afforded to those that cannot participate due to their ability or willingness to risk injury and death? Successful participation in fire camps should ensure a career path for IFFs after release from prison, and this principle can apply to other forms of work release programs. It is also important to note that participation in fire camps and similar programs may not be entirely voluntary. Prisons and jails subject individuals to sexual harassment, unhealthy living conditions, and countless other forms of violence. Under these circumstances, incarcerated people are likely to take any opportunity to leave the prison, even if it means risking their lives.
Prison fire camps are a sort of liminal space, the uncertain and fragile purgatory between freedom and hostage, life and death (Goodman, 2014). The carceral modus operandi relies on stripping away the identities of incarcerated people. In the carceral regime, this eradication of selfhood is the ultimate form of control. Imprisonment is viewed as a self-inflicted and rightful consequence, and this deep-rooted tradition labels the incarcerated as inherently bad. If one does not wish to be a pawn of the carceral system, then one must not commit crimes, even if crime is the only option for survival. Asserting that individuals must not break the law in order to avoid being permanently labeled as “criminals” is a narrow and prejudiced perspective. Should society continue to treat harm as something criminals deserve, or will we allow people who have faced challenging circumstances – whose stories should not be made public without their consent – to overcome them?
PFCs offer an important model for potentially robust reform efforts. The opportunity to counteract physical and mental idleness, engage with the community, and re-instill a sense of individuality is imperative to rehabilitation. The stories of Amika Mota, Sammy, and others are proof that PFCs can reshape the carceral identity and the practices of the carceral regime. At the same time, incarcerated people are plagued by economic and political barriers that prevent rehabilitation. The (a)physical injuries resulting from healthcare insecurity, racism, and violence within prisons are not eliminated in PFCs. There is no way to ensure that the desire for atonement and reintegration that many IFFs seek is not abused by the state, even if the factors that make incarcerated lives expendable are counteracted.
It is the resilience and bravery of IFFs that enable the rehabilitative potential of PFCs: this potential was not an inevitable part of their design. The inconsistencies within fire camp programs and the general prejudices against incarcerated people allow the carceral state to wield power – power to deem incarcerated firefighters that protect the community as unsafe to live within it. However, if programs like PFCs can (at the very least) offer reasonable pay, build bridges to job opportunities outside of prison, and provide adequate physical care for their members, I believe the experiences of IFFs will support advocacy efforts to confront the deeper problems with the treatment of incarcerated bodies and minds. The roots of prison labor in racism and exploitative capitalism cannot be undone all at once, but the stories of current and former IFFs should motivate us to move away from punishment for its own sake towards the ideal of rehabilitation.
$1 An Hour to Fight Largest Fire in CA History: Are Prison Firefighting Programs Slave Labor? 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNsT-b-cS6k.
Adamson, Christopher. “Toward a Marxian Penology: Captive Criminal Populations as Economic Threats and Resources.” Social Problems 31, no. 4 (1984): 435–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/800389.
As Camp Fire Death Toll Rises, Meet the Prisoners Making $1 an Hour to Fight California’s Wildfires, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e4vItOu3qA.
Bales, William D, Catie Clark, Samuel Scaggs, David Ensley, Philip Coltharp, Alexa Singer, and Thomas G Blomberg. “An Assessment of the Effectiveness of Prison Work Release Programs on Post-Release Recidivism and Employment,” 2015.
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History. “Black Codes – Definition, Dates & Jim Crow Laws,” March 29, 2023. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-codes.
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Lowe, Jaime. “What Does California Owe Its Incarcerated Firefighters?” The Atlantic, July 27, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/07/california-inmate-firefighters/619567/.
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Schoenfeld, Heather. Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration. Chicago, United States: University of Chicago Press, 2018. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/jhu/detail.action?docID=5145703.
Shah, Anil, and Christoph Scherrer. “The Political Economy of Prison Labour: From Penal Welfarism to the Penal State.” Global Labour Journal 8, no. 1 (January 31, 2017). https://doi.org/10.15173/glj.v8i1.2774.
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Serna, Joseph and Mejia, Brittny. 2016. “Female Inmate Firefighter Dies Following Injury in Malibu Blaze.” Los Angeles Times. February 27, 2016. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-female-inmate-firefighter-death-20160226-story.html.
Taryn VanderPyl. “‘We’re Silent Heroes’: Inmate Firefighters’ Experiences with Dignity and Shame in a Prison Labor Program.” The Prison Journal 101 (2021). https://doi.org/1.o0r.g1/107.711/0707/3020838285855251210102299626.
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