On September 7, 2022, after many attempted delays from the City of Susanville, California, a Lassen County judge ruled in favor of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to close one of Susanville’s two prisons. The court case and public debate over the prison closure has been almost entirely based on the anticipated loss of 1,000 jobs in the prison, but the closure of this facility marks an enormous shift in the use of prison labor for public work. The California Correctional Center in Susanville is set to be closed by June 2023. It is one of two remaining training hubs for the California Conservation Camp Program, which, before 2019, made up 192 of 208 hand crews working for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (also known as CAL FIRE).
Although popular references to prison labor today often focus on the production of manufactured goods for private companies, public work programs make up significantly more of the total work assignments in prison. In fact, public work assignments are a larger percentage of prison jobs than government and private manufacturing combined.
Public work is a catchall category that refers to many types of manual labor for state governments including doing road work, cleaning up landfills and hazardous spills, moving debris and clearing roads after a hurricane, filling sandbags to mitigate flooding, carrying out forestry work in state-owned forests and firefighting.
Many Western states — like Nevada, Washington, Arizona and Oregon — have “conservation camp” programs where a few hundred incarcerated people are put to work on behalf of natural resource departments on vegetation management, hazardous fuel reduction projects and wildland fire suppression. California’s conservation camp program is the largest of these by far, employing somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 incarcerated people across the state in an average year to carry out millions of hours of work for CAL FIRE.
A groundbreaking new report on incarcerated workers by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Law Center aggregated all types of prison jobs in state and federal facilities. They broke down the types of prison jobs into four main sectors: maintenance of prison facilities (80 percent), production of goods and services for government agencies (6.5 percent), public work (8 percent) and work for private industries (>1 percent). The report estimates that 63,000 of all incarcerated workers are doing public work (8 percent of prison jobs).
Incarcerated firefighters face much higher rates of injury than professional firefighters, and are largely unable to negotiate the conditions of their work. A TIME investigative report found that incarcerated firefighters were four times more likely to be injured from “object-induced injuries, such as cuts, bruises, dislocations and fractures” than professional firefighters working on the same fire.
These types of programs use incarcerated workers to carry out year-round wildfire management labor, largely because they comprise an incredibly cheap labor pool for the state governments dealing with increasingly devastating fire seasons. However, California’s Conservation Camp Program, also known as “fire camp,” has been using this labor force for close to a century, and Susanville’s embattled prison has been at the heart of this program.
Susanville’s California Correctional Center is closing for two reasons. Firstly, the prison would require half a billion dollars in repairs to be up to code, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, making it a prime target for closure. Secondly, there are fewer “low-level offenders” eligible for fire camp, so the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has reduced the size of the conservation camp program and is routing all remaining training for the program through the Jamestown Sierra Conservation Center.
The smaller number of Level 1 (or “low level”) incarcerated people is a direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that California must release people from state prisons in order to reduce overcrowding. In tandem with other sentencing reforms and California’s Public Safety Realignment Initiative, federal enforcement of the 2011 ruling has reduced the number of people convicted of so-called nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious crimes, and these are the people who have historically made up 92 percent of California’s state hand crews.
This year, CAL FIRE reported that there are only 37 hand crews made up of incarcerated people, and only about 75 total hand crews, which is less than half of the standard 208 hand crews that CAL FIRE has previously relied upon. To restore the forestry and firefighting capacity of CAL FIRE, it must train and recruit people with livable wages and workplace protections.
California’s Incarcerated Public Workers
The low or unpaid workforce needed for wildfire management in California has long been disciplined by the police and prisons. “Paddywagon raids” carried out by fire wardens and sheriffs targeted “vagrants” who couldn’t prove their employment and thus would be either available to work in the forests or sent to jail if they didn’t. These took place in the early 20th century, as large groups of laborers were necessary for state-mandated projects in wildfire management and timber. The California prisons had auxiliary “road camps” starting in 1913, where incarcerated people built roads and highways throughout the state. The first iteration of “fire camp” was a stop-gap program started by a Los Angeles probation officer during the Great Depression to reduce the costs of incarceration in a crowded city jail.
The Los Angeles model caught on and during World War II, sentenced prisoners were given vacant positions in both manufacturing and forestry. Prison forest camps were established during the war, due to the Board of Forestry’s concerns that the state lacked sufficient labor power to counteract wartime arson attempts from Axis forces, which had occurred on occasion in Oregon. In the same period, the California Department of Corrections was formed as a separate entity from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1944 and these prison fire camps became a centerpiece of this new department. “Forest labor camps were the flagship of the department’s new approach,” wrote historian Volker Janssen.
When Gov. Pat Brown took office in 1959, he sought to expand the number of prisoners in camp and the rehabilitation programming in the Conservation Camp System. The focus on creating good workers and well-adjusted citizens out of the prisoners was particularly apparent in the Conservation Camp Program, which took its name after FDR’s insistence on conserving the resources and men of the nation. Brown’s unique contribution to the conservation program was construction of the Conservation Centers, first in Susanville, then in Jamestown and Chino, in order to recruit and train more individuals to join hand crews for forestry, trail maintenance and wildfire management. Brown championed these centers with the combined support of a state senator from Susanville, as well as the director of corrections and director of natural resources.
The Susanville prison, originally named the California Conservation Center, was built on 1,100 acres with open dormitories with 16 people in each, which was meant to replicate the number of people assigned to each hand crew. Programming at the center was meant to replicate military training for physical aptitude, with additional classroom training on firefighting in order to prepare incarcerated people before they were stationed at one of the Northern California fire camps. However, the number of people who were eligible and interested in working in conservation camps began to wane as drug convictions increased in the late 1960s and more placements were demanded in remote Northern areas of the state. Most prisoners had preferred to participate in the program because of the freedom it afforded them to meet with their family, but camp placements were more than 6 to 8 hours north of Los Angeles urban centers at this point.
The California prison system began to balloon in the 1970s, as it transformed into the “golden gulag,” and the Conservation Center held less and less relevance to the mission of the Department of Corrections. However, when the Susanville Center was slated to be closed in April 1973, the town pulled together a “Save Our Center Committee” which argued that the closure of the Susanville prison would spell economic ruination for the town, which had come to depend on the tax revenue of guards to support local education and government programs.
Even more damning, however, was the argument that the town would not be able to make do without the labor of incarcerated people used for wildfire management, fuel reductions and natural hazards mitigation. They reasoned that if the labor of these prisoners was pulled out of the town, not only would Susanville have less revenue from the employment the prison offered, but their town would also have to pay workers to do what incarcerated hand crews had been carrying out for free as a part of the Conservation Center programming.
After a year of rallies and town hall meetings, the “Save Our Center Committee” successfully lobbied the Department of Corrections to convert the Conservation Center into a medium-security facility. It was renamed the California Correctional Center, and was used as a reception center for other prisons instead of primarily as a training ground for the fire camp program. In the following decades, the prison became overcrowded and held 4,400 people, which was nearly four times the original capacity of 1,200. As the number of guards increased to keep up with the incarcerated population, the prison’s payroll skyrocketed from $1.6 million in 1963 to $34 million in 1995.
The Susanville residents lobbying for the protection of their prison won their demand to safeguard prison jobs — for both free and incarcerated people working in them. They recruited the construction of another facility in their town, High Desert State Prison, and they have kept open the Antelope Conservation Camp in their town as well. However, the pressure to reduce the overcrowded state prison system and sentencing reforms have forced the state to reduce the number of Level 1 prisoners, which has limited recruitment of incarcerated people for wildfire management labor.
Replacing Prisoner Labor?
The budgets from 2020-2022 have successively implemented Newsom’s “right-sizing” and closure of camps and prisons throughout the state, and a mandate to limit public spending on prisons. Newsom successfully closed one prison in Tracy, and has plans to close three more in the next three years. After writing it into the 2020-21 budget, CAL FIRE and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released a joint statement announcing the closure of eight fire camp locations, bringing the total in operation to 35 throughout the state. Throughout these projected closures, tenuous agreements have been drawn up between the California prison guards’ union (CCPOA) and Newsom about staffing cuts, salary increases and campaign support in the wake of the decreasing total population of California prisons. Only after Newsom promised a bonus and yearly raise to all prison guards did their union write out a check of $1.75 million for Newsom’s recall defense campaign, which was the single largest contribution from a state employee union.
Throughout the 1970s, lawsuits from prisoners alleged that their living conditions were grotesque. Their discontent culminated in a protest against the guards in 1977. Today, incarcerated people say the facility is worse than ever. More than 100 incarcerated people at the California Correctional Center in Susanville filed an amicus brief in May 2022 testifying about the poor conditions of the facility in order to underscore the urgency of the state’s plan to permanently close the facility. They explained that the roofs of the building often leak and leave their cells flooded for days, which contributes to the growth of algae and black mold throughout the facility. As Truthout has previously covered in the case of other California prisons, environmental justice issues and an inordinate exposure to health hazards are a huge issue for incarcerated people at the Susanville prison.
Reducing prison population and program sizes will reduce state expenditures in one way but will require more spending to replace the millions of work hours that Conservation Camp Program hand crews have carried out on controlled fires, trail maintenance, fuel reduction and firefighting.
The decrease in incarcerated people has meant that there are 100 fewer hand crews available to CAL FIRE. The 2021 and 2022 budgets have replaced the Conservation Camp Program hand crews with people from the California Conservation Corps and California Military Department, but so far, they have only been able to scrape together funding for 24 additional crews, meaning that CAL FIRE is still short about 1,000 frontline wildfire and forestry workers.
Brian Kaneda, deputy director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, one of the state’s largest prison abolitionist organizations, argues that this is exactly the opportunity for a just transition away from carceral facilities supporting town economies, and a need for state investment in careers in wildfire management and conservation to replace prisons. Experts in forestry policy agree with Kaneda, and argue that California’s forest restoration requires coordination with Tribal governments, recruitment of formerly incarcerated firefighters, and improvements in wages and conditions for all forestry and hand crew workers.
The Fire and Forestry Recruitment Program takes this proposal a step further; it trains formerly incarcerated people to become professional firefighters. Many of their program participants were in fire camp themselves and want to join the ranks of CAL FIRE and county fire departments but encounter many difficulties doing so. However, as journalist Adam Mahoney reported in the news site Capital B, Royal Ramey, co-founder of the organization and a former incarcerated firefighter, speaks enthusiastically about the possibilities for careers in firefighting. “We need firefighters, and to be doing a job that is needed by the world makes it more fulfilling,” Ramey told Capital B. “Purpose is something they take from you in prison; this gives it back.”