By Steve Horn
As three historic wildfires burned through over 384,300 acres of Arizona in June, the state deployed nearly 200 firefighters to bring the blazes — which were visible on NASA and NOAA satellites in orbit 23,000 miles above — under control.
State prison inmates made up two out of three of those firefighters, under a program that Arizona uses to lower the costs of coping with the ever-worsening wildfire seasons brought on by climate change. The program pays prisoners pennies on the dollars paid to state employees for the same hard and dangerous work.
The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry hires the prisoners via the Inmate Wildfire Program. Recent budgetary figures show that these firefighters earn miniscule wages of $1.50 per hour while fighting fires, $1 an hour for other fire suppression work, and $.50 per hour for other non-fire labor. To put that in context, according to Tiffany Davilla, a spokesperson for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM), the median pay for non-incarcerated firefighters is $22.31/hour, or an average annual salary of $58,006 for the standard 50-hours-a-week fireman's schedule. If they worked standard firefighter hours, incarcerated firefighters would earn just under $4,000 for the year.
Despite the rising climate change-fueled wildfire risks, the state spends far more on its prisons and law enforcement apparatus than it does on direct costs of firefighting.
In March, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a fiscal year 2021 budget allotting just $9.1 million for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) for 88 full-time employees as well as 192 workers in the Inmate Wildfire Program. According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, six crews totaling 113 prisoner firefighters from a half-dozen state prison complexes aided in fighting the June wildfires.
“Absolutely it saves the state, and ultimately the taxpayer money,” Davilla said. “Fire suppression is not cheap, and we must find cost-savings when it comes to fighting fire. These crews are an integral part of our workforce. They work throughout the year, fighting fire during peak times, and do fuels mitigation work in the off season.”
In the same state budget, the 9,695-employee Department of Corrections and Juvenile Corrections received $1.2 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, while the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which employs about 2,000 people across the state’s highway patrol, narcotics enforcement, intelligence and forensics bureaucracies, and a dedicated “strike force” at the border with Mexico, received $322.7 million.
The state’s 2020 and 2019 budgets allocated funds along similar lines.
Arizona state Rep. Kirstin Engel, whose Tucson district sits near the site of June’s 119,000-acre Bighorn Fire, called the budget figures “really disturbing.”
“What these numbers say to me is they're using inmate labor to close the budget gap,” said Engel, also a professor at the University of Arizona College of Law whose research focuses on climate change and environmental law. “It’s really the state’s responsibility to, along with the federal government, fight these fires. But that should be done primarily with paid workers.”
Bill Lamoreaux with the Arizona Department of Corrections said by email that the agency determines pay rates by state statute.
The Inmate Wildfire Program “has provided the training and opportunities to inmates interested in becoming a wildland firefighter upon release,” Lamoreaux said. He pointed out the example of the “Phoenix Crew,” initiated by Ducey, which according to the department’s website consists “of mostly post-release individuals who either spent time on firefighting crew while incarcerated or have previous firefighting experience.”
According to Davilla, members of the Phoenix crew can earn $15 per hour, or around $39,000 for the year. That's $7 per hour, and $19,000 less per year than their never-incarcerated counterparts. It's also a steep climb into the profession, and for former inmates, opportunities are generally rare.
“The barriers are not necessarily a straight ban on employment, it is other things, like being ‘on paper’ (i.e. parole/probation) and thus not being able to travel, or being unable to fill out the application online due to lack of internet/computer skills, or not being able to wait for wildfire season for income,” Lindsey Raisa Feldman, an anthropologist at the University of Memphis who has studied the Arizona program, said in email. “What I think is important to discuss is not any 'official ban' on folks with felonies, but the myriad other reasons that could make it challenging for a person to continue on to become a firefighter upon release.”
Davilla said the DFFM does not track which incarcerated firefighters find work in the profession after release and Ducey’s office referred repeated requests for comment to the forestry agency.
Rebecca Fealk, a program coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee in Arizona who focuses on prison and criminal justice system reform, says the state should begin collecting such data.
“If we don’t collect the information, we can’t know if there is a problem and how to remedy it,” said Fealk. “Because of the stigma that surrounds people with felony records, [collecting the data] is a low priority for most public and private employers.”
This lack of data may also obscure structural racism in the program’s hiring practices. According to both state and federal census data, Blacks make up nearly 15% of Arizona prison inmates, compared to just 5.2% of the statewide population. But one former fire program participant, May Tiwamangkala, said that in her own experience participants were “disproportionately white.”
Tiwamangkala, who now considers herself a prison reform activist, believes one reason those in the firefighting program skew white is that they “have to be classified as minimum risk, and more white people get easier charges.”
The agency does not maintain demographic data on program participants, according to spokesperson Davilla.
The daughter of Thai immigrants, Tiwamangkala received a three-year sentence for driving with a suspended license and under the influence of marijuana and alcohol, convictions that could have led to up to 12 years in prison.
She entered the Inmate Wildfire Program seeking “redemption for being locked up and causing my family hurt and pain,” she said. “I wanted to do something that was serving the community, even if it pushed me to my limits physically and mentally.”
While taking “pride in the experience” of keeping the public and landscapes safe from fire, Tiwamangkala said she “couldn’t help but feel exploited” as she advanced through the program.
“I ended up quitting because I was feeling the pressure from the officers and our morale was becoming toxic,” she said, adding that the state took two-thirds of her money to pay for alcohol counseling required as part of her sentence.
“They also would punish us with excruciating workouts,” Tiwamangkala said, “and we had constant anxiety of whether it was a good or bad day for the officers because if it was a bad day, we got punished more.”
While Tiwamangkala came away feeling negative about her stint as an inmate firefighter, Feldman has found that many program participants come away with more positive experiences. But prison labor programs are still “inherently exploitative,” she said, and have troubling racial dimensions emanating from the Constitution’s 13th Amendment which makes slavery and involuntary servitude legal punishments “for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
“Given the prison system's direct ties to slavery in the US, and given that all states have an over-population of Black people and people of color behind bars, we can ascertain that prison labor is inherently exploitative and exists to uphold an unjust system,” Feldman — who wrote a 2018 paper about Arizona’s prison wildfire program which she researched in part by spending 15 months in the program herself — said via email. “Pay discrepancies between incarcerated and non-incarcerated wildland firefighters make this clear: incarcerated individuals are doing the same risky work, but are paid a fraction of what their non-incarcerated colleagues make.”
Participants in California’s inmate wildfire fighting program, which dates back to the mid-1940s, earn two days off their prison sentences for each day in the program. But inmates in Arizona’s program, which began in 1984, earn just a single day off their sentences for every six days worked.
State Rep. Walt Blackman introduced a bill during the 2020 legislative session that would have changed that to one day off their sentences for every two days worked. But the bill did not even receive a committee hearing, and Blackman said he now plans to fold the legislation into a broader earned credits reform bill in 2021.
Blackman sees the Inmate Wildfire Program as a “model” group for prison reforms because it is “the population that has already demonstrated that they can go outside the prison walls and do a service that most people who are free wouldn’t even do.”
“Most observers do not see any difference in the level of performance of the two different classifications of firefighters, he added, while lauding the “sense of camaraderie” and teamwork among participants.
Fealk countered that Blackman’s bill, as well as other earned credit proposals in the legislature, are just chipping away at the logical fiscal outcome of a 1993 Arizona truth in sentencing law, which mandates both lengthy sentences, and that prisoners serve out at least 85% of those sentences before the state can grant parole. Arizona ranks fourth nationally in spending on incarceration, while ranking 49th in educational spending, Fealk noted.
“If we put our money into law enforcement and prisons and we expand that, that’s where people are going to go” for workers, she said. “If you build it, they will come.”
Another thing is building too: extreme fires driven by rising global temperatures.
“What’s even more significant is that we hear about these all the time,” said NASA climate researcher Amber Soja, in a recent video about the Arizona fires, “We hear about the biggest fires in California or in Arizona and then the next year, they’re surpassed again by the biggest fires and the biggest fire season.”
Brett Story, a documentary filmmaker and author of the book “Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power Across Neoliberal America,” said she believes that the push for climate justice and criminal justice reform go hand in hand.
“States like to plead poor when it comes to responding to the climate crisis,” said Story, “saying that it would cost too much money to retrofit housing stock, train workers for a new economy, put a halt to fracking or pipelines. But state expenditure when it comes to jails and prisons gives lie to this claim.”
The increase in extreme wildfires is symptomatic of the climate crisis, noted Story, who recently authored an article in the left-wing publication Jacobin titled “A Green New Deal for Decarceration.”
That makes use of prison labor to fight wildfires a climate problem as well, she believes, and solving both means that governments must “put meaningful regulations on the fossil fuel industry and channel extensive resources into transitioning its economy away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.”
July 27, 2020: This story has been updated.