From Fighting Wildfires to Digging Graves, Incarcerated Workers Face Danger on the Job

Sam McCann Senior Writer
Jul 26, 2023

Wildfire season arrived in North America this year with record-breaking smoke across the continent. This season is different in many ways—fires have started earlier than ever, and smoke has contaminated the air for more than a third of United States residents. But in the United States, the work of fighting seasonal wildfires often falls on the same group it has for decades: people held in prisons.

Incarcerated people comprise 30 percent of all wildland firefighting crews in California. The firefighters’ job is to clear areas surrounding a wildfire using chainsaws and hand tools, such as axes and rakes, to starve the fire of fuel. The work is as dangerous as it sounds; compared to other firefighters, incarcerated people fighting wildfires are four times more likely to sustain physical injuries—like cuts, bruises, dislocations, and fractures—and eight times more likely to suffer from the effects of smoke inhalation.

That risk of injury reflects the fact that incarcerated firefighters, like most incarcerated workers, receive limited training. Professional firefighters in California work three-year apprenticeships, but incarcerated firefighters are deployed with as little as three weeks of training. In exchange for this incredibly dangerous work, incarcerated firefighters earn between $2.90 and $5.12 a day, depending on their duties—and slightly more when fighting an active fire. Upon their release from prison, they face a slew of barriers to putting their hard-won expertise into practice as professional firefighters due to their criminal records. Legislation passed in 2020 eased some of those challenges by making it easier for people who fought fires while in prison to have their records expunged, but, as of last summer, only a dozen people had benefited from this opportunity.

Despite the risks, low pay, and limited opportunity, every year more than a thousand incarcerated Californians run into danger to help protect others. Some cite what they see as even riskier conditions behind bars.

“The conditions in California prisons are so terrible that fighting wildfires is a rational choice,” Matthew Hahn, a formerly incarcerated firefighter, wrote in The Washington Post. “It is probably the safest choice as well.”

While incarcerated California firefighters choose to work, many other incarcerated workers are not allowed a choice at all. The 13th Amendment ended slavery in the United States, but a loophole allows people convicted of crimes to be forced to work. In some states, prison officials can force people in their custody to work for nothing. Yet, even in states that do offer pay, like California, the wages offered are often shockingly low. Each year, states extract an estimated $11 billion in goods and services from the labor of incarcerated people who are paid little or nothing, often in unsafe conditions. Sixty-four percent of people working behind bars say that they fear for their safety, and 70 percent say they have not received formal training.

Incarcerated firefighters have some of the highest rates of injury among all prison workers, but they are far from the only people in prisons working incredibly dangerous jobs for meager pay. Here are some other ways states place incarcerated workers in danger for pennies on the dollar:

  • Asbestos and lead paint removal: During the COVID-19 pandemic, people incarcerated in New York State worked in asbestos abatement and lead paint removal, both of which carry significant health risks if not performed properly, such as increased risk of cancer and damage to brains and other vital organs. Incarcerated people in New York have allegedly been coerced into work, with some saying they were threatened with violent retaliation for missed work, including the threat of relocation to dangerous cell blocks.
  • Disaster response: Incarcerated workers are often used in dangerous missions following natural or man-made disasters. In 2005, incarcerated workers were forced to help dig out debris from devastating mudslides in California. In 2021, 16 years after a failure to evacuate incarcerated people left 517 people unaccounted for after Hurricane Katrina, some officials in Louisiana decided to hold people in jails rather than evacuate them before Hurricane Ida made landfall. One sheriff used incarcerated people to fill sandbags to protect residents’ property from the storm while the surrounding area was under evacuation order, a decision the sheriff bragged about on social media. And in Nevada, incarcerated workers’ labor has been used during floods and even with recovery efforts after the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
  • Hand sanitizer production: In early March 2020, as the pandemic drove up demand for hand sanitizer, New York forced people in state custody to assist in bottling and labeling it for as little as $0.16 per hour. The incarcerated workers were initially not allowed to use the hand sanitizer themselves, a policy that was later reversed.
  • Digging mass graves: At the start of the pandemic, New York City allegedly offered people held on Rikers Island six dollars an hour to dig mass graves on Hart Island. The city used the graves when the bodies of people who died of COVID-19 were not claimed within two weeks of their death.
  • Emergency preparedness plans: A study that examined the disaster plans of the 47 states that make them publicly available found that 30 of them have explicit instructions to use incarcerated people for disaster relief. The jobs for incarcerated people detailed in these plans ranged from making sandbags or clearing debris to specialized or especially dangerous tasks like cleaning up hazardous materials.

Prison labor is incredibly valuable to states; the profit incarcerated labor generates is what made last year’s Alabama prison strike effective, and it is why states are reluctant to pay even minimum wage to its workers. But the exploitation of incarcerated workers must stop. Coercing people in prisons into some of the most dangerous jobs in the country is unjust, even before we consider their lack of training, advancement, or pay. People must be paid for their labor—a basic tenet of our society that should not be checked at the prison gate.

One important step in stopping that exploitation is passing the Abolition Amendment, a federal bill that would close the loophole in the 13th Amendment. States should also pursue legislation that ends the practice locally. Last year, four states voted to change their state constitutions to end slavery as punishment for a crime. Others, like New York, are considering legislation that would require the government to pay incarcerated workers at least minimum wage. These laws are common sense: forcing people to the front lines of wildfires, pandemics, and other dangerous situations—and then profiting from their risks—perpetuates the gravest injustices in our legal system.