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Climate Change Meets Mass Incarceration: California's Incarcerated Firefighters

By Ryan Harvey and Sammy Didonato - Truthout, December 27, 2017

The intersection of climate change and mass incarceration is not unique to California, but as the state experiences its deadliest and most destructive year on record for wildfires -- including the second-largest in the its history -- the state's incarcerated firefighter Conservation Camp program has come firmly under the microscope.

With fresh air, no walls and better treatment than prison, these "fire camps" have been commended as a model for rehabilitation. However, with wages at a fraction of minimum wage, they have been condemned as an exploitative labor practice.

Often missing from this debate are the voices of the firefighters themselves, whose perspectives offer an important nuance of criticism and possible solutions.

"What worries me when I hear too much discussion about fire camp as a form of slavery, is that they're focusing on perhaps the best part of the whole prison system," formerly incarcerated firefighter Matthew Hahn told Truthout. "The firefighters are in the public, that's why they are getting the focus. At the same time, they are living in perhaps the best conditions in the California prison system."

Selena Sanchez, an incarcerated firefighter until last year, describes an experience far better than prison but full of hard work, false promises and extremely low pay. "I'm not going to paint a pretty picture of it," she says. "They ran us like dogs."

Still, Sanchez says she would return to fire camp if she found herself back in prison.

The Conservation Camp program, joined at times by other local county prison so-called "Honor Camps," began in 1946 as a partnership between the California State Detentions Bureau -- now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) -- and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire). It quickly grew to become a staple of fighting California's wildfires, and has long been destination number one for prisoners serving time in the state prison system.

A nuanced look at the dynamics of this program, and the small percentage of prisoners eligible for participation, reveals that even though fire camps offer alternatives to prisoners being behind bars for all of their incarceration, the model has its shortcomings and should not be seen as a panacea to mass incarceration.

What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, December 8, 2017

Sadly, we are becoming  used to seeing headlines about the costs of fighting climate change-related wildfires, hurricanes, and floods – most recently, the record wildfire season of 2017.   These news reports usually discuss loss  in terms of the value of  insurance  claims – for example, “Northern Alberta Wildfire Costliest Insured Natural Disaster in Canadian History – Estimate of insured losses: $3.58 billion”   from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, or in terms of the budgets of emergency service agencies – for example, “Cost of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017” from Reuters (Sept. 14), or in terms of health and mental health effects – for example, “Economic analysis of health effects from forest fires”  in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research (2006).  “The Science behind B.C.’s Forest Fires” (December 5) post by West Coast Environmental Law discusses the links to climate change, and concludes that the record wildfires of 2017 foreshadow growing economic and  human costs in the future.

When employment effects of disasters are reported, it is usually by statistical agencies interested in working days lost or unemployment effects,  for example,  “Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016”  from Statistics Canada, or “Hurricane Katrina’s effects on industry employment and wages ” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( 2006) . While all these are important, Hurricane Katrina taught that there are also other aspects, including those of environmental and economic justice.