Student Research: Labor Representation of Unionized and Incarcerated Firefighters in California’s Wildlands

Many people in California were saddened to learn that the state's recent wildfire devastation took the lives of firefighters defending Californians' lives, land, and homes. But what they might not have known — and what they may and found even more distressing — is that two of these firefighters were incarcerated people working in a prison labor program, earning no more than $2 an hour.

In her Master’s thesis, Anna Doty (MCP ’17) sought to re-conceptualize prison labor as exploitative labor, underscoring its impact on the labor market on the “outside” and the critical need for prisoner workers’ representation and workers’ rights, especially in the context of dangerous work:

"In California, up to 40% of the state’s firefighters are incarcerated people working in a prison labor program called the Conservation Camp Program, more commonly known as 'fire camps.' Fire camps are 43 small, rural prisons throughout the state that house up to 4,500 incarcerated people and are largely co-managed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Cal Fire, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Each year, California’s incarcerated firefighters provide approximately three million person-hours responding to fires and other emergencies and are paid between $2 a day in the program to $2 an hour when on the fireline." — From Doty's thesis abstract

Since the loss of these firefighters, Doty reflects, "My research on California's prison fire camps arises out of the growing climate justice movement, which understands spatial planning, climate action, mass incarceration, and worker justice as entangled planning and ethical challenges. As planners in the age of climate change, we have the moral obligation to grapple with these entanglements in the West, and throughout the nation, as we increasingly rely on prison labor for disaster response." 

Professor Jason Jackson served as Doty's advisor on this project. To read her full thesis on Dspace, click here.

Doty is now a Teaching Fellow for Marshall Ganz's course "Organizing: People, Power, and Change" at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Photo By: Pfc. Nicholas P. Baird