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October 17, 2021

Prisoner Firefighters

An interesting, well written account of why California prisoners prefer fighting wildfires to sitting in prison cells.

Sending us to fight fires was abusive. We preferred it to staying in prison.

By Matthew Hahn
Matthew Hahn is a union electrician and meditation teacher who writes about his time in prison and issues related to criminal justice. He lives in San Jose, Calif., with his wife and two cats.
October 15, 2021 at 6:55 a.m. EDT


On the perimeter of the smoldering ruins of Lassen National Forest in Northern California this summer, an orange-clad crew of wildland firefighters worked steadily to contain the Dixie Fire, the largest single wildfire in state history. Using rakes, axes and chain saws, they literally moved the landscape, cleaving burned from unburned to contain the flames. This work was dangerous, and they made just a few dollars per hour, working 24-hour shifts.

But it was better than being in prison.

I used to be one of the incarcerated people whom California employs to fight wildfires, and I was fortunate. During my nine years in prison for drug-related burglaries, ending in 2012, I never met a fellow prisoner who didn’t want to be in “fire camp,” as the program is known. Some dreamed of going but knew they would never be allowed to live in such a low-security facility. Others, like me, did everything in their capacity to ensure that they got there as soon as humanly possible. For the most part, this meant being savvy and lucky enough to stay out of trouble during the first few years of my incarceration.

Though the program is voluntary, some well-meaning people on social media and in activist circles like to compare fire camp to slavery. Every fire season, they draw attention to its resemblance to chain gangs of the past, its low wages and its exploitative nature. Some argue that incarcerated firefighters face insurmountable barriers to careers in that field after parole, though this has started to change in recent years. Others argue that the voluntary nature of fire camp is a ruse, that consent cannot be offered by the coerced.

There is some truth to these objections, but they ignore the reality of why people would want to risk life and limb for a state that is caging them: The conditions in California prisons are so terrible that fighting wildfires is a rational choice. It is probably the safest choice as well.

I’m from a long line of California ranchers. Now we flee fires all the time.

California prisons have, on average, three times the murder rate of the country overall and twice the rate of all American prisons. These figures don’t take into account the sheer number of physical assaults that occur behind prison walls. Prison feels like a dangerous place because it is. Whether it’s individual assaults or large-scale riots, the potential for violence is ever-present. Fire camp represents a reprieve from that risk.

Sure, people can die in fire camp as well — at least three convict-firefighters have died working to contain fires in California since 2017 — but the threat doesn’t weigh on the mind like the prospect of being murdered by a fellow prisoner. I will never forget the relief I felt the day I set foot in a fire camp in Los Angeles County, like an enormous burden had been lifted.

The experience was at times harrowing, as when my 12-man crew was called to fight the Jesusita Fire, which scorched nearly 9,000 acres and destroyed 80 homes in the Santa Barbara hills back in 2009. I distinctly remember our vehicle rounding an escarpment along the coast when the fire revealed itself, the plume rising and then disappearing into a cloud cover of its own making. Bright orange fingers of flame danced along the top of the mountains.

The fire had been moving in the patches of grass and brush between properties, so we zigzagged our way between homes, cutting down bushes, beating away flames and leaving a four-foot-wide dirt track in our wake. I was perpetually out of breath, a combination of exertion and poor air quality. My flame-resistant clothing was soaked with sweat, and I remember seeing steam rise from my pant leg when I got too close to the burning grass.

The fire had ignited one home’s deck and was slowly burning its way to the structure. We cut the deck off the house, saving the home. I often fantasize about the owners returning to see it still standing, unaware and probably unconcerned that an incarcerated fire crew had saved it. There was satisfaction in knowing that our work was as valuable as that of any other firefighter working the blaze and that the gratitude expressed toward first responders included us.

Prisons are getting Whiter. That’s one way mass incarceration might end.

There are other reasons for prisoners to choose fire camp if given the opportunity. They are often located in secluded natural settings, giving inmates the chance to live in an environment that doesn’t remotely resemble a prison. There are no walls, and sometimes there aren’t even fences. Gun towers are conspicuously absent, and the guards aren’t even armed.

Camps have good meals, more nutritious and higher-calorie than those served in the chow hall behind the walls. Hobby shops give the men and women of fire camp the opportunity to do woodworking, metalsmithing and painting.

Perhaps the greatest incentive is the work-time credits, allowing for earlier parole. Before I got to fire camp, my earliest possible release date was November 2013, yet I ended up paroling in February 2012.

It’s understandable that fire camps are seen as dicey ethical terrain. Yes, the decision to take part is largely made under duress, given the alternative. Yes, incarcerated firefighters are paid pennies for an invaluable task. And yes, it is difficult though not impossible for participants to become firefighters after leaving prison. Despite this, fire camps remain the most humane places to do time in the California prison system.

The risk of the slavery conversation is that it further endangers the fire camp program. Already, the state has closed some camps as it tries to reduce the incarcerated population and fewer eligible people remain in prison. There are now 1,600 incarcerated men and women scattered in 35 fire camps across the state. “We are in desperate need of these programs,” Brandon Dunham, a former U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management firefighter, said recently. “They need us and we need them.”

Private prisons aren’t uniquely heinous. All prisons are abusive.

If one is genuinely worried about slavery or the choiceless choice of incarcerated firefighters, consider the guy pushing a broom in his cell block making the equivalent of one Top Ramen noodle packet per day, just so he can have the privilege of making a collect call to his mother. Or think of the man scrubbing the streaks out of the guards’ toilets, making seven cents an hour, half of which goes to pay court fees and restitution, just so he can have those couple of hours outside his cage for the day.

I appreciate the collective efforts and concern on behalf of incarcerated firefighters. But they fail to take into account the hundreds of thousands of people in jails and prisons across America in conditions so terrible as to make fire camps seem like country clubs. Places where people are forced to choose between working for nothing and losing their humanity.

So, while we may have faced the heat of a wildfire for a few bucks a day, and we may have saved a few homes and been happy doing so, understand that we were rational actors. We wanted to be there, where some of our dignity was returned to us.

Filed under California | permalink | October 17, 2021 at 07:59 AM

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