Incarcerated people across the United States are going on strike Tuesday, kicking off a three-week protest against poor conditions and forced labor in what could be one of the largest prison strikes in U.S. history. For many, the strike comes after several months of battling extreme wildfires in states like California, where incarcerated people are often put involuntarily in dangerous positions for minimal pay during natural disasters.
Beginning this week, at least 17 states will see a halt to labor and, in some cases, hunger striking in a wide-scale protest organized predominately by incarcerated people themselves. They will refrain from cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other daily work as part of the effort, in keeping with their demand to an “immediate end to prison slavery,” or work for unequal pay and treatment.
“All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor,” reads one of the demands listed by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), which is supporting the strike.
Nineteen days of striking are planned, beginning August 21 and running until September 9, a day that coincides with the anniversary of the the Attica prison uprising in upstate New York in 1971. The strike comes several months after a deadly incident at a South Carolina prison where seven people died, seemingly without assistance from prison officials.
A number of cities are participating in virtually every region across the country. According to USA Today, they include several California cities, like Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Jose. Those strikes come after growing controversy surrounding the role of incarcerated people in fighting wildfires, a practice that criminal justice advocates have long critiqued.
Drought, wind, and rising temperatures have helped to make this year’s wildfire season on the West Coast one of the worst in years, killing multiple people and destroying millions of acres of land. On July 31, a Twitter account for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced that many of those helping to keep the situation under control were in fact prisoners of the state.
“Today, more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, are battling wildfire flames throughout CA. Inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire’s spread,” the account wrote.
The tweet sparked backlash predominately over the inclusion of “youth offenders,” a term not clearly defined. Criminal justice advocates say the term typically refers to people older than 18 but still relatively young, likely only into their very early 20s. However, there was no consensus and some speculated it could vary from state to state.
ThinkProgress reached out to CDCR several times for comment but received no response or clarification on how the department defines youth offenders.
Buried in the initial CDCR tweet, however, was a larger reality. Incarcerated people have long battled natural disasters — including hurricanes and floods — and assisted with cleanup. That practice is especially controversial when it comes to wildfires.
“In general, incarcerated people are tapped into a lot for public services,” said Nicole D. Porter, who works with the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization. Porter told ThinkProgress that in Western states like California, incarcerated labor is often used during wildfire season, largely because doing so helps cut costs.
That means that in addition to the public labor often demanded of incarcerated people, like collecting trash along highways, many in fire-affected areas are also facing daunting and dangerous tasks.
“In addition to public works, they’re responding to natural disasters,” Porter said, noting that there is also a long history of private contractors taking up contracts with state prison systems for incarcerated disaster assistance.
As of early August, nearly 2,000 incarcerated firefighters were battling flames in California. Many are women and an overwhelming number are likely Black and Latinx, in keeping with prison population demographics, though hard data is not readily available.
They are earning $1 an hour when on-duty and $2 a day when off-duty (an amount that is, notably, higher than the several cents they are often paid for efforts like mopping floors). At times, they work shifts spanning 72 hours.
Such arrangements are made legal by the 13th Amendment, which did away with slavery but left a glaring caveat: forced labor is legal “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Incarcerated labor has been used since the 1940s to fight fires in California, representing around one-third of the state’s firefighting force. But as the state — where abuse within prisons is rampant — works to reduce overcrowding, that labor force has dwindled, even as fires become more prevalent and dangerous than ever in the face of global warming.
Those serving as firefighters must meet a number of prerequisites and undergo a training course; people convicted of arson and those serving life sentences, for example, are barred from the job. In exchange for their efforts, many receive a reduction in their sentencing time. They also typically sign agreements noting the risks of the job and absolving the state of blame should they be injured or even killed.
California defines the process as “voluntary,” something that advocates and formerly incarcerated firefighters have pushed back against. Ingrid Archie served time in a California prison in 2015 and worked at a fire camp. While she was injured during training and thus unable to assist in directly battling wildfires, Archie worked instead as a non-grade, maintaining the camp for the wider group of firefighters.
Archie, a single mother working to get back to her children, told ThinkProgress that the arrangement was “not a volunteer process” and that there were repercussions — namely, extended time serving — for those who did not comply.
“They tell you that you’re going to go to fire camp and then a chief comes to see you and then they come and ask you where you want to be,” said Archie. “I asked to be closer to home.”
Home for Archie is Corona, California, and after several months at the fire camp she was able to return to her children. She noted that the experience was fine and that she was glad for the reduced sentence time, but that the lack of transparency surrounding the process was a drawback.
“I didn’t think it was nothing wrong, fire camp they tell you that you get to go home early. That’s why I opted to go. But just knowing that if I didn’t participate, I would’ve had time added… that’s something you’re not aware of [when you go in],” she said.
It’s unclear how universal Archie’s experience is, but advocates question whether incarcerated people are ever in a position to truly consent, even if given the chance to volunteer.
“Whether or not a prisoner can actively consent to anything, including volunteer firefighting, is a complicated thing. Some would say they are actively participating. Others would say the choice is not fully their own,” said Porter, of the Sentencing Project.
Prison conditions are often dismal and many are desperate for any chance to leave, even briefly. The added perk of a reduced sentence makes firefighting work even more appealing.
“People are looking for an escape in any way. Even if it means a short period of time, even if it means risking one’s life,” said Porter. “I think that calls into question the fundamental nature of prison.”
Many firefighters are seriously wounded on the job, and some die tragically. Moreover, despite their firefighting skills, many formerly incarcerated people find it hard to obtain jobs in that field following their release.
Firefighting isn’t prevalent in every state, but the issue isn’t going away. Those going on strike across the country beginning Tuesday have a number of demands, including an end to voting restrictions following release and appalling living conditions. Most prominently, strikers are calling for an end to “modern-day slavery” and equal compensation for equal work.
Kevin Steele, a formerly incarcerated man who now works with the New York chapter of IWOC, told Al Jazeera that if nothing else, the strike will challenge how people in prison are seen by outsiders.
“The message that they are trying to send out is that they are human beings,” he said, “that they also have human rights, too, and they shouldn’t be treated as animals.”