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Progressive Policy Review

Topic / Environment and Energy

How the Climate Crisis Compounds Risks for Incarcerated Workers

A version of this article was originally published in August 2021 on Climate XChange’s “Intersection” blog. PPR thanks Climate XChange for their permission to reprint it here.

The summer of 2021 was marked by a series of climate-fueled disasters: heat waves with disastrous consequences, dramatic rainfall and intense thunderstorms, an earlier and potentially more destructive hurricane season, and nearly 100 wildfires raging across the country. The increasing intensity and destructiveness of natural disasters and extreme weather events is one of the most tangible ways that humans are already experiencing the climate crisis. 

We’re no longer surprised by stories about record-breaking disasters, and emergency declarations are becoming more frequent as these disasters cause more damage and threaten more lives. And, while these disasters are in the news every day, one of the less visible aspects of how states prepare for and respond to them is their reliance on incarcerated workers.

Incarcerated Workers, Past and Present

The Thirteenth Amendment, which nominally ended slavery in the United States, permits involuntary servitude “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” – an exception taken advantage of by virtually all American prisons.1 Not only are incarcerated people forced to work under threat of punishment, they are excluded from labor protections and can be sent to work under any circumstances, including in response to dangerous natural disasters.

California’s incarcerated firefighter program is the country’s largest and best-known, with a fire camp program that has been in operation since 1915 and, as of May 2021, housed about 1,600 incarcerated people.2 Of course, California is not the only state utilizing this practice: a majority of states’ emergency plans include deploying incarcerated people for emergency and disaster response.3 Incarcerated workers can be tasked with anything from fighting fires to cleaning up after oil spills, and they are paid an average of $0.14 to 0.63 per hour for this vital work, if they are even paid at all.4

As climate change drives up the frequency and intensity of these disasters, states are pushing some of their most vulnerable residents to the frontlines of the response. From an environmental justice perspective, incarcerated workers are a doubly vulnerable frontline community: prisons and jails are frequently overlooked or deliberately ignored in preparing for disasters,5 and incarcerated people are then “used to clean up the mess” in the disasters’ wake.6 

We also know that the effects of the climate crisis are already being disproportionately felt by people of color.7 In a country that incarcerates Black people at about five times the rate it incarcerates white people, the practice of deploying incarcerated workers to respond to disasters will certainly have unequal impacts.8 This practice is likely to expand as climate-fueled disasters get worse and more dangerous; earlier this year, legislators in Arizona passed a new law authorizing the state Department of Corrections to more than quadruple its number of incarcerated firefighters in anticipation of a “busy fire season.”9 Arizona pays incarcerated firefighters just $1.50 per hour when they’re fighting an active fire, and much less for other firefighting tasks.10

It can be extremely difficult for incarcerated firefighters to find employment after leaving prison due to discriminatory hiring practices. California’s Assembly Bill 2147 makes it possible for incarcerated people who’ve served at the fire camps to have their records expunged,11 but the pathway is still difficult in places like Arizona.12 This is emblematic of a deep hypocrisy in American culture: as a society, we are comfortable relying on incarcerated workers until the moment they leave prison. 

Climate Change and Incarcerated Workers

Climate change is exacerbating the dangers these workers face. Fire seasons are getting longer and wildfires are becoming more intense; there have been 15 fires in the U.S. that caused $1 billion or more in damages since 2000, and 2020 saw five of California’s six largest fires on record.13 And while incarcerated firefighters are relatively more visible, it’s important to remember that incarcerated people are working in other disaster response settings too, including hurricanes.14 Hurricanes are becoming more destructive as warming sea temperatures drive higher wind speeds and more precipitation. Incarcerated workers can be deployed to clean up the debris, as they were in Florida after Hurricane Irma in 2017.15 All of this means incarcerated workers are facing increasingly dangerous conditions for little to no compensation – and it’s only getting worse.

Some argue that working while incarcerated serves a rehabilitative function, but the coercive nature of incarceration and the incentives around performing this kind of work raise ethical questions. As Corene Kendrick, Deputy Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told me in an interview, incarcerated people sometimes choose this type of work because it can feel more meaningful or redemptive than other options, and it offers a chance to be outside and get physical exercise. But it also means being exposed to extremely dangerous conditions for little to no pay, and without the kinds of protections that non-incarcerated workers are afforded.

One formerly incarcerated person said that serving as a firefighter “seemed like one of the best things [she] could possibly do in prison,” but she also said she was “horrified about the fact that California is so incredibly over reliant on a prison population […] to backfill the state budget.”16 

The history of the American prison system is inextricable from the history of American slavery, and it’s not hard to see that connection in this context. The low cost of incarcerated labor may create a perverse incentive for governments to incarcerate more people: in a recent study of prison labor data in colonial and postcolonial Nigeria, economists Belinda Archibong and Nonso Okibili found that the profitability of certain crops drove up incarceration rates in areas where those crops were grown.17 

And while it’s true that incarcerated people working in disaster response aren’t technically making money for the prisons, the practice is often framed as a cost-saving measure.18 Instead of providing adequate funding for disaster management and response, states are “using inmate labor to close the budget gap,” said Arizona State Rep. Kristin Engel.19 Research by Texas A&M Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center’s Drs. Purdum and Meyer suggests that states whose emergency plans included the use of incarcerated workers tend to experience more federally-declared disasters and have higher rates of incarceration.20

The Path Forward

Emergency planning varies state by state, and it isn’t always evident which state agency has jurisdiction over the decision to involve incarcerated workers in disaster response. While lawmakers have traditionally taken a backseat to local leaders in responding to disasters, the necessity for strong state leadership in response to COVID-19 may set a new precedent, Dr. Samantha Montano, author of the forthcoming book Disasterology: Dispatches from The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis, told me.

But one thing is abundantly clear: too many states take the labor of incarcerated people for granted. As we prepare for increasingly dangerous disasters, we have an opportunity to rethink who provides the essential labor of responding and protecting us, and how we value those efforts.

[1] Whitney Benns, “American Slavery, Reinvented,” The Atlantic, September 21, 2015,

[2] “Conservation (Fire) Camps,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, accessed March 7, 2022,

[3] J. Carlee Purdum and Michelle A. Meyer, “Prisoner Labor Throughout the Life Cycle of Disasters,” Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy 11, no. 3 (2020): 296–319,

[4] “Disasters Deconstructed,” accessed March 7, 2022,; J. Carlee Purdum, “Prisoners Who Fight Wildfires and Clean up after Hurricanes Get Paid as Little as 14 Cents an Hour,” MarketWatch, September 16, 2020,

[5] William Omorogieva, “Prison Preparedness and Legal Obligations to Protect Prisoners During Natural Disasters” (Columbia Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, May 2018).

[6] Jessica Lipscomb, “Unpaid Florida Prisoners Being Used to Clean Up After Hurricane Irma,” Miami New Times, September 28, 2017,

[7] Tanushree Jain, “How the Climate Crisis and Pollution Disproportionately Impact Marginalized Communities,” The Berkeley Group, December 16, 2020,

[8] Wendy Sawyer, “U.S. Incarceration Rates by Race,” Prison Policy Initiative, 2020,

[9] Adrian Skabelund, “Arizona to Train 700 Inmates as Wildland Firefighters,” The Arizona Daily Sun, March 17, 2021,

[10] Dale Chappell, “Arizona Pays Prisoners Pennies on the Dollar to Fight Fires, All in the Name of Saving Money,” Prison Legal News, February 1, 2021,

[11] Alex Riggins, “California Bill Gives Hope of Employment to Formerly Incarcerated Firefighters — but Will It Work?,” San Diego Union-Tribune, September 21, 2020, sec. Public Safety,

[12] Catie Green, Sinead Hickey, and Miles Green, “Female Inmate Firefighters Build Character but Often Can’t Use Fire Skills after Release,” The Arizona Republic, January 14, 2021,

[13] “Wildfires and Climate Change,” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (blog), July 22, 2021,

[14] Jessica Kutz, “The Essential — and Dangerous — Work Prisoners Do,” High Country News, April 23, 2021,

[15] “Hurricanes and Climate Change,” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (blog), July 10, 2020,

[16] Justine Calma, “They Were Incarcerated Firefighters, Now They Want to Change How California Fights Fires,” The Verge, August 28, 2020,

[17] Belinda Archibong and Nonso Obikili, “Prison Labor Can Create Perverse Incentives for Incarceration and Reduce Trust in Legal Institutions,” ProMarket (blog), July 14, 2020,

[18] Lipscomb, “Unpaid Florida Prisoners Being Used to Clean Up After Hurricane Irma”; Purdum, “Prisoners Who Fight Wildfires and Clean up after Hurricanes Get Paid as Little as 14 Cents an Hour”; Chappell, “Arizona Pays Prisoners Pennies on the Dollar to Fight Fires, All in the Name of Saving Money.”

[19] Chappell, “Arizona Pays Prisoners Pennies on the Dollar to Fight Fires, All in the Name of Saving Money.”[1] Purdum and Meyer, “Prisoner Labor Throughout the Life Cycle of Disasters.”

[20] Purdum and Meyer, “Prisoner Labor Throughout the Life Cycle of Disasters.”