West Coast Wildfires: Where Prison Labor & the Climate Crisis Intersect
By Madeleine Farr & Sandy Tecotzky
Incarcerated firefighters in California last year, distinguishable by neon orange gear. Courtesy of CNBC.
Towards the end of the summer, Instagram and TikTok were flooded by posts regarding the orange glow that painted the West coast sky. Some users remarked that if the apocalypse of 2020 had yet to begin, the ash rain and unnaturally high temperatures officially marked its arrival. These wildfires stretched from California to Oregon to Washington, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands, and air quality ranging from unhealthy to hazardous.
Everyone knows that fighting a wildfire is a firefighter’s job, but fewer are aware that a significant number of these firefighters are incarcerated. Since the 1940s, imprisoned individuals have been trained and deployed to contain wildfires for up to five dollars a day.
Prison labor is used in many ways. Inmates will work, and, in return will be paid a very small wage (from cents to single dollars per hour). California relies heavily on incarcerated firefighters, most of whom are people of color, to keep their yearly fires under control; yet, the sheer lack of protection granted to these firefighters in return for their potentially fatal labor has caused many to conclude that the practice is yet another state-sanctioned form of abuse and exploitation of people of color.
Such a variety of injustices have been complicated further in the pandemic; to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, California governor Gavin Newsom launched an early release program, an initiative that made thousands of inmates eligible for release in August. This left California without hundreds of firefighters at the time when two of the three largest wildfires in the state’s history were tearing through the region.
For many New Yorkers, it may be difficult to truly understand the danger posed by wildfires ravaging the opposite side of the country, especially to incarcerated firefighters on the front lines. John Keaveny, varsity girls soccer coach, junior varsity boys basketball coach, and varsity ultimate frisbee coach, has been a fireman at Engine 74 for the FDNY for 17 years. When asked about the labor necessary to combat California wildfires, he said, “They go almost two weeks or three weeks, so they’re out the door [and] do 14-16 hours of work, and they rest right then and there where they are and get up and do it again.”
The use of prison labor to combat wildfires may be even lesser known than the effects of the fires themselves, though it may not come as a shock to those with an understanding of the United States’ prison system and how it disproportionately incarcerates racially and socioeconomically marginalized communities.
“[It] doesn’t surprise me. I think it shows how much our system is built on having this unfair, racist prison system,” said Avery Russell (‘22).
Echoing a similar point, Sophie Anderson (‘21) remarked that climate change is inherently intersectional: “Systems of oppression [have] allowed climate change to happen.” Sophie is a dedicated activist to the issue of climate change, and felt the effects of the wildfires first hand while living in California. “[You] have the fires caused by climate change, then you have the prison system which in itself is incredibly racist and classist, and then you have people not being paid full wage and then it’s happening in a pandemic.”
The ever-present fear that comes with the work too often goes unnoticed by those with the privilege of watching from afar. Without the work of these inmates, California’s understaffed crews would be unable to properly fight the blazes, yet the nearly unpaid labor of so many illuminates the harrowing injustices of our criminal legal system.
“I think it’s one of the byproducts of how much America is run by prisons, if that makes sense. [It’s] why people are so scared to not have prisons,” said Avery.
Such inequity is exacerbated by the fact that in many states, an EMT license is required to serve as a firefighter outside of prison; a license nearly impossible to obtain with a criminal record. Consequently, countless individuals who risked their lives protecting the state were abandoned without opportunity to actually be compensated for their work outside of prison walls, until very recently.
An anonymous Packer student shared, “Black and brown men are specifically disproportionately affected by the prison system. On top of that, the amount they are paid [for labor] is close to nothing, which means that prison labor pretty much goes hand in hand with slave labor.”
The comparison between modern day prison labor and slave labor is not as drastic as it may initially seem to some; in both cases, the system relies on the physically demanding work of Black and brown men, and proceeds to abandon and hurt them if they are released, as the felony charge on incarcerated firefighters’ records serves as a massive impediment to future success in the field.
Though it should be noted that legislation reform will not immediately protect all people of color in our country, nor will it solve the issue of climate change that requires this prison labor in the first place, some improvements have been made in regards to future opportunities for recently incarcerated individuals. A bill, AB 2147, passed recently with the signature of Governor Newsom to help pave the way for some formerly incarcerated people to obtain EMT licenses.
As Coach Keaveny pointed out: “It’s good, you know, everything is about second chances. And it should be.”