Firebound: The History and Future of America’s Forced Firefighting Force
There is a human rights scandal currently underway in America that history will almost certainly deem as cruel and inhumane: California’s coerced use of prison labor to fight its annual forest fires.
While everyone knows California fought nearly 600 fires this season, very few people are aware that each year, thousands of incarcerated men, women, and teenagers join one of 192 inmate fire crews, earning as little as $0.12 per hour, working in brutal 24-hour shifts, battling out-of-control blazes, risking their lives in unbelievably dangerous conditions, all in order to get a shot at having their criminal records expunged.
And they do all of this after just two weeks of training.
While private prisons rake in record profits, the use of coerced labor saves California taxpayers $100 million per year, making nearly forty million citizens complicit in a moral crime that’s been quietly going on since WWII.
How It Started
Officially called the California Conservation Camp Program, the CCCP is about as ghastly as one can imagine: Each year, upwards of 3,000 inmates “volunteer” to risk burning to death in order to earn a shot at better living conditions, early parole, and record expungement.
The CCCP’s mission is ostensibly to “support state, local and federal government agencies as they respond to emergencies such as fires, floods, and other natural or manmade disasters.” But is it really “supporting” when shackled labor comprises nearly a third of the state’s total firefighting capacity?
Not unlike the Russian CCCP, the Californian CCCP sacrifices its own citizens for the supposed good of the state. Russia sent its prisoners to the frozen north. America sends theirs to the burning west.
The program traces its roots back to 1915 when chain gangs built and maintained the nation’s roads and railways. During World War II, many firefighters enlisted or were drafted, and there was a serious firefighter labor shortage. California forced prisoners to pick up the slack, and by 1946 they’d constructed their first permanent camp with the cheery name of Rainbow Conservation Camp.
Since then the program has steadily grown. By the late 1950s, there were sixteen camps including several teen camps, with politicians more than happy to reduce prison overcrowding while reaping the savings of underpaying prison firefighters. The first female camp opened in the early 1980s, with politicians by this point caring far less about the supposed rehabilitation benefits and much more about the cost savings. Because capital, after all, rules all of American life.
Where It’s At
Today the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation runs two female camps, one teen camp, and more than forty male camps. No one is “forced” to join a firebound crew, but the alternative — staying in prison — is often far more bleak and life-threatening.
An escalation in the size, severity, and number of dangerous natural events forces hundreds of firebound crews to endure more than 10 million hours of labor each year. The pay, if one can call it that, is far below the legal minimum wage: as little as $2.90 per day. Some firefighters have died — smashed by rocks, fallen off ravines, scorched to death. Those who live face not only fires but sickness, sleep deprivation, mountain lions, scorpions and rattlesnakes, and are four times more likely to suffer injuries resulting from brutal conditions — any of which will return them to prison. Even talking back to a captain has landed some firefighters back in the clink.
Despite their lack of extensive training, these prisoner battalions work alongside professional CAL FIRE and Los Angeles County Fire Department crews. Perhaps the greatest insult to injury is that, until recently, released prisoners have been banned outright from working as civilian firefighters.
Though Governor Gavin Newsom finally signed a bill that allows prison firefighters to petition the court to expunge their record, it’s not yet clear if many of the nation’s more conservative judges will actually do so, clearing the way for fire-forged ex-convicts to get certified to do what they’ve already been doing for years.
Is This a Form of Slavery?
It’s easy to look at different forms of oppression as the beneficiaries and rationalize that various modes of labor aren’t slavery:
Is the Bangladeshi worker who sews clothing seven days a week in a sweltering sweatshop truly free if there are no other jobs available?
Is the eighteen-year-old prostitute truly working freely if she was trafficked from the age of fourteen?
Is the teenaged boy living in a filthy and overcrowded prison with severely limited visitation rights, fed unhealthy industrial food, afraid for his life and surrounded by violent gangs, really making a free choice when he shoulders sixty pounds of gear and risks roasting alive for a shot at normal adulthood?
Is the CCCP simply manufacturing consent?
The Oxford English Dictionary offers three definitions of a slave:
- “A person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.”
- “A person who works very hard without proper remuneration.”
- “A person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something.”
By these definitions, firefighting prisoners are slaves: They are the legal charges of the state. They are forced to obey. They work very hard without proper remuneration. They are excessively dependent on and controlled by, a for-profit private prison system.
The reality is that no free person would take the deal these inmates are offered, yet millions of Americans still argue that captive and coerced labor isn’t a form of slavery. So who gets to define it?
Slavery, in proper fact, is a matter of degrees. While clearly inmate firefighting programs are not the same form of slavery as practiced in Antebellum America — by all accounts, the CCCP program remains free of systemic rape, torture, abuse, purposeful breeding, and work-to-death policies — it is a form of slavery nonetheless.
The spectrum of oppression is very broad, and it is up to democracy — we the people — to carve a line in the stone and forbid ourselves from crossing over.
In Defense of Slavery
No free person would take the deal these inmates are offered, yet millions of Americans still argue that systemic coercion isn’t a form of slavery. Politicians tell us there is a vast range of benefits from continuing to coerce prisoners into dousing fires: public savings, less prison overcrowding, a chance for prisoners to pay their debt to society, an opportunity to erase their records, and so forth.
All of their praises are problematic.
Private prisons — which already have perverse incentives to keep people locked away for as long as possible — now have an incentive to keep prison conditions as wretched as practically possible, creating a push-factor that encourages more prisoners to sign up.
There’s no reason why non-violent records couldn’t be expunged upon release, regardless of firefighter status. The very notion that one can “pay their debt to society” in purely monetary terms is as outdated as the Victorian belief that the shape of one’s skull indicates how intelligent they are. And is the public really saving money if we’re simply rejecting thousands of potential tax-paying firefighters?
CAL FIRE, for its part, is vehemently against relying on firebound labor, not only because it takes away jobs from highly-trained professionals; it drastically lowers the bar and puts even the most experienced crews at greater risk.
Like the colors of the undulating flames they fight, pros wear yellow and prisoners wear orange, both charging up ridges and plunging into valleys. The only difference is that the prisoners are poorly trained and yet sent on the most dangerous missions. They are the nation’s most vulnerable first responders.
The more altruistic proponents of the program say firefighting provides many inmates with a sense of purpose and redemption. While this is undeniably true, it would be illogical to suppose that these feelings of goodwill would be in any way diminished if these brave souls also received adequate training and market wages for their efforts. Clearly, cost savings is the primary and ultimate motivating factor for the program’s continued existence in its present form.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that $100 million in savings is nothing for a state the size of California. Is saving $2.53 per citizen truly worth the dark cost of blotting a great stain on the moral conscience of an entire generation?
There is a deep lack of empathy in our times.
If we could truly put ourselves in their mountain-worn boots, to hear the roar of flame and feel its smelting heat on our sunburned faces, to breathe smoke in our lungs and truly know the fear of death in our hearts — then maybe we, too, could consider sacrificing an annual cup of fair-trade coffee to end this particular coercion.
Posterity will ultimately look unkindly at our times and judge us harshly. They will tear down our statues and erase our names from buildings — and they will be right to do so because, unlike our ancestors, we knew better.
We took to the streets with our child-mined phones and our slave-made clothes and, with all the blind hypocrisy we could muster, demanded “justice for all” while our slaves kept the fires in the hills and away from our homes.
We should all burn for this.
Never worry when you can prepare and resist
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Jared A. Brock is the author of The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War and the founder of SurvivingTomorrow.org. Follow him on Medium here.