Prison Labor in a Warming World

When floods and fires strike, who has to clean up the mess?

There are 43 “conservation camps” across California. Conservation camps, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), “provide able-bodied inmates the opportunity to work on meaningful projects throughout the state.” Over 4,000 people live at Conservation Camps and comprise 30-40% of state forest firefighters. During the 2017 California wildfire season, which included 9,000 fires over 1.2 million acres of land, incarcerated firefighters received as little as $2/hr to perform harrowing and life-threatening work. Insufficient compensation for people in prison is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, as the number of natural disasters increase, state and federal governments consistently implement strategies that exploit the prison labor system.

Currently, natural disasters are anything but natural. Fracking and waste disposal have caused earthquakes, the oil industry has caused catastrophic spills, and climate change will continue to increase the severity of hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. The term “natural” disaster falsely attributes environmental havoc to nature rather than to resource extraction. Government institutions and corporations conceal the real cost of climate change by exploiting incarcerated people in times of environmental crisis.

Left to Weather the Storm

Many states rely on prison labor to provide relief during and after environmental disasters without prioritizing the safety of these workers. For example, when Hurricane Irma struck Florida in August and September of 2017, the state of Florida forced hundreds of people in prison to prepare for and clean up debris created by the storm. However, Florida failed to evacuate at least 4,500 incarcerated people in designated evacuation zones.

Similarly, in the days leading up to Hurricane Harvey, “hundreds of Texas prison inmates were forced to fill sandbags the state would use to brace against coming flood waters” as a part of an unpaid prison labor routine. Despite forcing people in prisons to protect the state from hurricane damage, officials decided not to evacuate incarcerated individuals, which exposed these workers to deplorable conditions, including lack of medicine, flooded cells, dehydration and no access to clean drinking water, and electronically operated cell doors that could not open during power outages. Although a federal judge ultimately ordered an evacuation, this state-sanctioned neglect left many people stranded in prisons without assistance.

On multiple occasions, federal and state authorities failed to evacuate people in prison, including during Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Andrew. Left unchecked, this pattern and practice will continue irrespective of its human toll, especially as the frequency of environmental disasters increases.

Relying on the labor of people in prison and failing to ensure their safety sends a clear message: the lives of people in prison only have value when they can clean up other people’s messes for free.

Toxic Work Environments

In addition to states and government institutions, private companies also exploit prison labor to reduce costs. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP contracted prison labor to clean up the toxic waste. The cleanup from Deepwater Horizon sheds light on the common practice of prisons and corporations extracting labor from communities of color through the prison labor system:

“The racialized nature of the cleanup is so conspicuous that Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward on July 9, demanding to know why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins. Hiring prison labor is more than a way for BP to save money while cleaning up the biggest oil spill in history. By tapping into the inmate workforce, the company and its subcontractors get workers who are not only cheap but easily silenced—and they get lucrative tax write-offs in the process.” BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle, Abe Louise Young, The Nation

Deepwater Horizon led to same type of exploitative use of prison labor that occurred during Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey. These type of abuses reflect a larger pattern of environmental injustice perpetuated by the prison system. People in prison already face a higher risk of toxic exposure given the location of prisons near historically toxic sites like superfunds. Both prisons and the prison labor system expose people to toxic living and working conditions.

Conservation Camps

While living at California’s conservation camps, incarcerated people prepare sandbags for floods, clear debris, fight forest fires, and perform other conservation work. The CDCR website describes how conservation camps evolved from highway construction camps to forestry camps:

“California’s prison highway and forestry camps shared what might be considered a social compact between correctional employees and those imprisoned in the camps: sweat and time in the form of hard labor were exchanged for what by most accounts were living conditions considerably more pleasant than behind prison walls.”

The CDCR describes working at these camps as a privilege that “inmates must earn.” According to a Mother Jones article, “participants make $2 per day in the program and $2/hour when they are on a fire line. That may sound paltry, though it’s not bad by prison standards. In addition for each day they work in the program, the people in prison receive a 2-day reduction from their sentences.”

At what cost does this opportunity come? While some people in prison praise the program as an alternative to a correctional facility, others express concern that incarcerated people do not receive fair compensation for their extreme labor. CDCR explains how these conservation camp programs “sav[e] California taxpayers approximately $100 million dollars.” California promotes these programs for their cost-saving benefits. However, this “saved”  money represents the inadequate wages and training for the people who participate in these programs. During the 2018 wildfire season, incarcerated firefighters have received as little as $1/hour.

Dangerous and life-threatening tasks like firefighting require appropriate training. For example, participants in conservation camps can receive as little as 3 weeks of training compared to the 3 years completed by non-incarcerated firefighters. Additionally, the training provided for people in prison does not necessarily lead to future jobs: for example, Los Angeles County Fire does not hire people who have been convicted with a felony.


Labor Exploitation is not “Conservation”

A very fine line exists between “job training” and exploiting marginalized people for undervalued or free labor. Conservation camps exemplify this exploitation. CDCR characterizes participation in these camps as a privilege because participants can leave the confines of a prison in exchange for “hard labor.” In past interviews, conservation camp participants have responded favorably to these programs due to their relative “freedom” of movement at these camps. The department of corrections often uses this “favorable” reaction to validate their “rehabilitative” programs. In reality, this testimony simply affirms that people would rather not live in overcrowded and inhumane conditions.

Contrary to their reputation for rehabilitation, programs such as conservation camps depend on the same racist assumptions of human worth that perpetuate the coercive prison labor system nationwide. The prison labor system has direct ties to the legacy of slavery and the 13th amendment which legitimizes the involuntary and uncompensated labor of incarcerated individuals. Uncompensated prison labor motivated the historic 2016 prison strike on the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising. Tens of thousands of people in prison demanded an end to “slavery-like conditions.” Despite these demands, people in prison still face the same working and living conditions. The 2018 California wildfires have already drawn attention to the unjust treatment of incarcerated firefighters.

The burden of climate disasters disproportionately falls on people in prison, while those responsible for climate change face no consequences. The public must break this cycle of injustice by demanding responses to environmental disasters that do not rely on and reinforce an oppressive criminal justice system.

Sophie Duncan is a queer robot beep-booping her way through grad school one rusty, robot heartbeat at a time. She likes plants (ALOT ALOT) and dabbles in the sophisticated science of caring for pet-rocks. When she’s not making weird things with glue and paper, she thinks about how shooting stars are the universe’s garbage. or something.