How the Climate Crisis Compounds Risks For Incarcerated Workers

This summer has been marked by a series of climate-fueled disasters: heat waves with disastrous consequences, dramatic rainfall and intense thunderstorms, an earlier and potentially more destructive hurricane season, and nearly 100 wildfires raging across the country. The increasing intensity and destructiveness of natural disasters and extreme weather events is one of the most tangible ways that humans are already experiencing the climate crisis. 

We’re no longer surprised by stories about record-breaking disasters, and emergency declarations are becoming more frequent as these disasters cause more damage and threaten more lives. And, while these disasters are in the news every day, one of the less visible aspects of how states prepare for and respond to them is their reliance on incarcerated workers.

Incarcerated Workers, Past and Present

The Thirteenth Amendment, which nominally ended slavery in the United States, permits involuntary servitude “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” an exception taken advantage of by virtually all American prisons. Not only are incarcerated people forced to work under threat of punishment, they are excluded from labor protections and can be sent to work under any circumstances, including responding to dangerous natural disasters.

California’s incarcerated firefighter program is the country’s largest and best-known, with a fire camp program that has been in operation since 1915 and currently houses about 1600 incarcerated people. Of course, they’re not the only state utilizing this practice: at least 30 states’ emergency plans include deploying incarcerated people for emergency and disaster response. Incarcerated workers can be tasked with anything from fighting fires to cleaning up after oil spills, and they are paid an average of $0.14–0.63 an hour for this vital work, if they are even paid at all.

As climate change drives up the frequency and intensity of these disasters, states are pushing some of their most vulnerable residents to the frontlines to bear the burden of response. From an environmental justice perspective, incarcerated workers are certainly a frontline community. Incarcerated people are doubly vulnerable: prisons and jails are frequently overlooked or deliberately ignored in preparing for disasters, and incarcerated people are then “used to clean up the mess” in the disasters’ wake. 

We know that the effects of the climate crisis are already being disproportionately felt by people of color. In a country that incarcerates Black people at about five times the rate it incarcerates White people, the practice of deploying incarcerated workers to respond to disasters will also certainly have unequal impacts. This practice is sure to expand as climate-fueled disasters get worse and more dangerous; earlier this year, legislators in Arizona passed a new law authorizing the state Department of Corrections to more than quadruple its number of incarcerated firefighters in anticipation of a “busy fire season.” Arizona pays incarcerated firefighters just $1.50/hr when they’re fighting an active fire, and much less for other firefighting tasks.

It can be extremely difficult for incarcerated firefighters to find employment after leaving prison due to discriminatory hiring practices. California’s AB 2147 makes it possible for incarcerated people who’ve served at the fire camps to have their records expunged, but the pathway is still difficult in places like Arizona. This is emblematic of a deep hypocrisy in American culture: as a society, we are comfortable relying on incarcerated workers until the moment they leave prison. 

Climate Change and Incarcerated Workers

Climate change is exacerbating the dangers these workers face. Fire seasons are getting longer and wildfires themselves are becoming more intense; there have been 15 fires in the U.S. that caused $1 billion or more in damages since 2000, and 2020 saw five of California’s six largest fires on record. And while incarcerated firefighters are relatively more visible, it’s important to remember that incarcerated people are working in other disaster response settings, including hurricanes. Hurricanes are becoming more destructive as warming sea temperatures drive higher wind speeds and more precipitation, and incarcerated workers can be deployed to clean up the debris, as they were in Florida after Hurricane Irma in 2017. All of this means incarcerated workers are facing increasingly dangerous conditions for little to no compensation – and it’s only getting worse.

Some argue that working while incarcerated serves a rehabilitative function, but the coercive nature of incarceration and the incentives around performing this kind of work raise ethical questions. As Corene Kendrick, Deputy Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, explains in an interview with Climate XChange, incarcerated people sometimes choose this type of work because it can be more meaningful than other options, and it offers a chance to get outside and get physical exercise. This means that these workers are incentivized to expose themselves to extremely dangerous conditions for little to no pay and without the kinds of protections that non-incarcerated workers are afforded.

One formerly incarcerated person said that serving as a firefighter “seemed like one of the best things [she] could possibly do in prison,” but she also said she was “horrified about the fact that California is so incredibly over reliant on a prison population […] to backfill the state budget.” 

The history of the American prison system is inextricable from the history of American slavery, and it’s not hard to see that connection in this context. The low cost of incarcerated labor may create a perverse incentive for states to incarcerate more people: in a recent study of prison data from colonial and postcolonial Nigeria, economists Belinda Archibong and Nonso Okibili found that the profitability of certain crops drove incarceration rates in areas where those crops were grown. 

And while it’s true that incarcerated people working in disaster response aren’t technically making money for the prisons, the practice is often framed as a cost-saving measure. Instead of providing adequate funding for disaster management and response, states are “using inmate labor to close the budget gap,” said Arizona State Rep. Kristin Engel. Research by Texas A&M Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center’s Drs. Purdum and Meyer suggests that states whose emergency plans included the use of incarcerated workers tend to experience more federally-declared disasters and have higher rates of incarceration.

The Path Forward

Emergency planning varies by state and while lawmakers have traditionally taken a backseat to local leaders in the process, the necessity for strong state leadership in response to COVID-19 may set a new precedent, Dr. Samantha Montano, author of the forthcoming book Disasterology: Dispatches From The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis, told Climate XChange. 

The question of which state agency has jurisdiction over the decision to involve incarcerated workers in disaster response does not have a clear answer, potentially because of the extent to which the availability of this labor is taken for granted. As states prepare for increasingly dangerous disasters, we have an opportunity to rethink who provides the essential labor of responding and protecting us, and how we value those efforts.

Featured Image: Photo by Yasunori Matsui, U.S. National Park Service