You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Violent Contradiction of California’s Reliance on Incarcerated Firefighters

The state is dependent on workers it deems disposable and essential at the same time.


The lightning storm started in the early hours of August 15, electricity snaking the sky, looking for a place to land. California’s fire season is traditionally a six-month affair lasting from May to October and peaking in early fall. But as climate change progresses, the fires have grown more frequent and fire season has expanded. By this time last year, fires burned through 59,000 acres, compared with the 7,000 fires so far this year that have claimed nearly 1.5 million acres

Even as the escalating severity of each year’s fires has come to feel expected, an obscene kind of normal in the Anthropocene, the pandemic has brought new dangers: Home evacuations and shelter relocations are now riskier; relief funds and service organizations are stretched as mass unemployment has dropped the floor out from families across the state. There is also the matter of the labor force California has long relied on to tend to a landscape set ablaze: incarcerated firefighters.   

In May, when prisons in California reported the first  Covid-19 infections, the state responded to the crisis by releasing people with preexisting medical conditions and little time left to serve on their sentence. In doing so, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation off-loaded some of its most exploitable workers. (This was precisely what California’s then–Attorney General Kamala Harris predicted when, in 2014, her office argued against a new parole program that expanded eligibility for early release. Incarcerated laborers were simply too essential to California’s economy to deserve freedom.)  

As fires tear through the state—often in places where Indigenous peoples were banned from conducting controlled burns on land that was stolen by a nascent California government—the depravity of this sense of dependence has been more fully exposed. “This situation right now really shows the intersection of multiple challenges within the state,” Brandon Smith, who served as a firefighter when he was incarcerated, told me. “There’s an environmental challenge here, there’s a criminal justice challenge here, there’s the current Covid crisis, [and] the need to decarcerate these prisons.” We are dealing with co-created crises: California has made incarcerated people essential to its survival, while it’s the opposite narrative—their supposed unfitness for or debt to society—that justifies locking them in cages. The story of how we got here is the story of that contradiction. 

Since 1915, California has conceived of its incarcerated residents as willing and able for and deserving of low-wage labor, which was exploited to build roads, construct public parks, and yes, fight fires. That effort grew when California expanded its prison system in the 1980s and ’90s, peaking in 2006 with 173,000 people locked away in state-run facilities located in low-income communities, where the land was less expensive. 

Despite a steady decline in the number of people (often and disproportionately Black and brown) shadowed away behind concrete and wire since 2006, state spending on prisons actually increased by 7 percent between 2010 and 2015. This year, it will cost just over $80,000 to lock someone up. By paying incarcerated firefighters poverty wages, many people involved in these systems say that California “saves” money, which could be a confounding misunderstanding of the difference between government and for-profit business or a blatant admission that exploitation is a worthy, profitable business practice.

The circularity of systems that spin our collective suffering has revealed what incarcerated firefighters already knew: that these issues build one another and, together, perpetuate a violence that’s both American and unoriginal—theft of land; genocide of those who stewarded that land; construction of prisons on land with little arable value; investment of public funds into mechanisms of control; and a refusal to address climate change.

California’s Conservation Camp program ramped up during World War II, bringing the welfare-warfare model to the Golden State. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that there are currently 3,100 incarcerated firefighters working, earning up to $2 or $3 per day with an additional pay of $1 when they’re on an active fire, and all told, they’ll complete three million hours of this poverty-wage work each year. 

No one’s forced to be a firefighter, necessarily. It was the promise of better food and an opportunity to leave the four concrete walls of prison and develop professional skills that motivated Smith. “I really appreciated the fact that I was helping out the community. Even though I was in prison I could still have a positive benefit on the state,” Smith told The New Republic. “That gave me a sense of worth.”  

Whereas in previous years, Smith said, upward of 200 fire crews were active in the state’s response to wildfires, this year that number hovers around 100. On the line, incarcerated firefighters work shoulder to shoulder with free firefighters. Sometimes they’ll hike into a hard-to-reach area, Royal Ramey, a formerly incarcerated firefighter said. In other instances, firefighters will “put fire on the ground”—initiate a controlled burn. 

They do the same work in teams of 20 to reduce “fuel” for the fire—clearing brush away, digging out roots, cutting down trees, in shifts that can run for 24 hours depending on the fire. “Nobody out here is really cutting brush,” Smith said. “Nobody is really doing that work except the people currently in fire camp.” It’s hard work, often neglected by the agencies responsible for it, and completed for poverty wages. 

“Why are we good enough to fight fires for $1 but we’re just not good enough to be on the fire line and doing it professionally?” Ramey said. Together, Smith and Ramey founded the Forestry Fire and Recruitment Program, an organization that aims to increase opportunities for employment in wildland firefighting, specifically for people who face barriers in the employment process, like those formerly incarcerated. The work incarcerated firefighters do “is slave labor in a sense,” Ramey said. 

The historical parallels to the post–Civil War era are explicit: The Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  Thus was born the system of convict leasing, which condoned forced labor as a natural by-product of a racialized identity. “The population of convicts, whose racial composition was dramatically transformed by the abolition of slavery,” wrote Angela Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete?, “could be subjected to such intense exploitation and to such horrendous modes of punishment precisely because they continued to be perceived as slaves.” 

Incarcerated workers are then both people and not people in the eyes of the state. The work is deemed necessary, yet it’s unmeasured: When the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the civilian labor force each month, the agency does not include in its official tally military personnel and incarcerated workers. 

Similarly, the language through which incarcerated labor is justified has transformed in recent decades, softened around its edges, but the racialized dehumanization remains present. “The inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires,” Mike Hampton, a former corrections officer at a fire camp, recently told The New York Times. “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?” 

The comment seems to understand that filling beds in California’s prisons is essential to keeping them funded and that the labor of those who sleep in cages is essential to the state’s current economic and governing structures. How to justify releasing incarcerated people when they’re needed to fight fires isn’t really the question, though. At least, when considering the inhumanity of our social construction of climate change and our physical construction of prisons, the more urgent demand is: How did the state justify any of this to begin with?