The Fire Inside: The Ethics of Prison Labor in the Face of a Climate Crisis

This past week, the California sky turned an eerie orange, the temperature rose to a whopping 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and ash snowed from the heavens. As the wildfires across the West continue to burn, the coronavirus-related shortage of incarcerated firefighters has renewed ethical questions about the prison labor system and the rights of incarcerated people. 

Wildfires are not new to the California landscape, but they have increased in ferocity in recent years—an increase that environmental scientists link directly to climate change. Since 1970, the extent of California wildfires has increased fivefold. The warmer and drier summers have stripped moisture from the air and plant life, creating kindling for the fires that require only a spark to turn into a blaze. Currently, 27 major wildfires rage up and down the West Coast. The largest, the August Complex Fire, has destroyed over 700,000 acres of land and remains only 38 percent contained as of September 23. “In 18 years of growing up in the Bay Area, there has never been a wildfire that made the air quality this bad,” said senior Adrien Hanley, “but since I left for college in 2017, there have been three in my region.”

California is facing unique challenges this year in fighting the wildfires because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the higher infection rates for people in the prison system, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) recently announced their decision to release as many as 17,600 inmates. Six hundred of the inmates released since July worked as firefighters in the state’s Conservation Camp Program (CCP). 

California first turned to prison labor to help contain wildfires in the early 1900s. After the onset of World War II, many of the state’s firefighters left to serve in the military overseas. While many industries turned to women as a labor source during the World Wars, in California inmates became the cheapest option to help combat wildfires. According to the American Friends Service Committee,  approximately 4,000 incarcerated workers, adults, and juveniles currently work at Fire Camps—sites designated by the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA). CALPIA is one of the state’s prison labor programs that was founded in 1982, managed by the CDCR.

Through the state’s CCP, incarcerated people with “minimum custody status” (the lowest classification of inmates) can volunteer to help fight the wildfires—although it requires extensive training and licensing from the state to participate. According to the CDCR, inmates undergo “the same entry-level training that CAL FIRE’s seasonal firefighters receive in addition to ongoing training from CAL FIRE throughout the time they are in the program.” The promise of shortened sentences is used to coerce inmates into participating in the program.

According to CA’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, when not actively fighting fires, inmates participate in manual labor and “conservation projects” to prevent forest fires, such as clearing debris and dead brush. They also work on projects aimed at “maintaining parks, sandbagging, flood protection, and reforestation” and make between $2 and $5  a day for this labor. On the fire line, the inmates work under extremely dangerous conditions and make $1 an hour. The state of California stands to benefit from paying the inmates such a low wage, saving $90 million to $100 million a year. Molly Gould from Tufts for a Racially Equitable Endowment (TREE) commented on the low wages and dangerous conditions and stated that “the Prison Industrial Complex in the United States (and globally) is specifically designed to prioritize profit over people in a way that epitomizes institutionalized racism.” 

Activists at Green America, an environmental and labor rights not-for-profit organization, have likened the incarcerated firefighters’ work to slave labor, given the negligible pay, life-threatening conditions, and the essential nature of the work undertaken by a population shunted to the margins of society. In an article for Green America, activist Sytonia Reid explains how prison labor in America has roots in slavery: three years after the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation was passed, a 13th Amendment was added to the US Constitution, stating that neither “slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Reid and other activists argue that dangerous, barely-paid labor for the lowest classification of inmates is not only an unfit punishment, but a stripping of rights and exploitation of cheap labor by a powerful system.

Gould echoed Reid’s sentiments, speaking about her vision of an equitable future without the prison-industrial complex that allows these instances of abuse to occur: “Incarceration is an economic endeavor that was never really meant to address societal problems but rather to uphold the systems of racial oppression that have always governed this country,” Gould explained. “Prison labor represents one example of blatant human exploitation for marginal capital gain. The American prison system creates traumatic ripples that affect individuals, families, and communities, and prison abolition is the only logical path toward creating a truly just society.”

Under recent public pressure to rectify this exploitation, the governor of California signed a new bill allowing inmates who had served as firefighters while incarcerated to withdraw their plea of “guilty” and re-enter a plea of “not guilty” after their time served. This would allow the court to dismiss information against the defendant and release them from penalties associated with their prior offense. This bill would not apply to incarcerated people convicted of murder, sexual offenses, kidnapping, arson, or those who have a history of violent escape attempts.

The question then becomes: is this enough? While the new bill would provide a pathway for formerly incarcerated people to utilize their training and become full-time firefighters upon release, it does not address many of the underlying ethical issues for inmates still in the CCP.  

According to an email from TREE Events Coordinator Gabe Reyes, “[T]he use of prison labor to fight the California wildfires shows us just how much prisons are an intentionally classist and racist endeavor. Rather than dealing with societal problems in transformative or restorative ways, prisons subsume groups of people that our capitalist society does not value to do our ‘dirty work,’ like providing slave labor to do tasks that no one else wants to do. In this process, their communities are torn apart and often disallowed from gaining the economic and social stability that wealthier communities have.” 

In addition to the economic and social instability caused by mass incarceration, the implications for the environment are equally grim. Many activists believe that the fight against the prison-industrial complex and for climate justice are intertwined and will require the merging of political coalitions. As Sunrise Movement Tufts stated, “[I]n order to effectively combat the climate crisis, we need to build a multi-racial, cross-class movement that elevates the voices of the people most impacted and treat every life with value and respect. Nowhere in that vision is there a place for mass incarceration and the exploitation of prison labor.”