After many delays by the City of Susanville in California, a Lassen County judge ruled for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to close one of Susanville’s two prisons. The court case and public debate surrounding the prison closing have almost all been based on the loss of 1,000 prison jobs. However, this closure marks a major shift in the use for prison labor for public service. The California Correctional Center in Susanville will be closed by June 2023. It is one the two remaining training hubs of the California Conservation Camp Program. 192 of 208Hand crews for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (also referred to as CAL FIRE).
Although prison labor is often seen as being about the production of manufactured products for private companies, the majority of prison work assignments are actually in public programs. Public work assignments account for a greater percentage of prison jobs that government and private manufacturing.
Public work can be described as a general category that includes all types of manual labor done by state governments. It can include road work, cleaning up after storms, and other tasks. landfills hazardous spills, moving debris and clearing roads after a hurricane, filling sandbagsTo reduce flooding, you can do forestry work in state-owned forests or firefighting.
Many Western states — like Nevada, Washington, Arizona 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 5,000Inmates across the state are incarcerated on average for one year. millionsCAL FIRE requires a lot of work.
A groundbreaking new reportThe American Civil Liberties Union (ACU) and the University of Chicago Law Center combined all types of prison jobs within state and federal facilities to find incarcerated people. 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). According to the report, 63,000 of all prisoners are working in public service (8 percent of prison jobs).
Incarcerated firefighters are more likely to be injured than professional firefighters and are often unable or unwilling to negotiate their work conditions. 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 employ incarcerated workers for year-round wildfire control labor. This is due to the fact that they provide a low labor pool for state governments facing 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. 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.
CAL FIRE reported in 2012 that there are only 59 firefighters. 37 hand crewsThe incarcerated population made up less than 25% of the standard 208 hand-crews that CAL Fire relied on. It must recruit and train people with livable wages, workplace protections, and the ability to restore CAL FIRE’s firefighting and forestry capabilities.
California’s Incarcerated Public Workers
Police and prisons have long disciplined the low- or unpaid workforce required for California wildfire management. “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 were common in the early 20th-century, when large numbers of laborers were required for state-mandated projects such as timber management and wildfire management. 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.
Los Angeles’ model was popularized and, during World War II, prisoners were given vacant positions in 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. The California Department of Corrections was also established in the same time period. This separate entity was created from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which was founded in 1944. These prison fire camps were the centerpiece of this new department. “Forest labor camps were the flagship of the department’s new approach,” wrote historian Volker Janssen.
Governor. When Pat Brown became governor in 1959, he wanted to increase the number and quality of prisoners in camp. 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. These centers were championed by Brown with the help of the combined support of a stateSenator from Susanville, along with the director for corrections and director for natural resources.
The Susanville prison, formerly known as the California Conservation Center, was constructed on 1,100 acres. Each dormitory contained 16 people. This was in an attempt to duplicate the number of hand crew members assigned to each person. The program at the center was intended to replicate military training for physical ability, with additional classroom training in firefighting in order prepare incarcerated persons before they were sent to one of the Northern California fire stations. As drug convictions rose in the late 1960s, more people were placed in remote Northern California areas. This led to a decrease in the number of people who were interested in working in conservation camp. Many prisoners preferred to be part of the program for the freedom it offered to them to see their families, but camp placements were often more than 6-8 hours north from Los Angeles urban centers.
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 concerning was the argument that the town could not survive without the labor of incarcerated persons used for wildfire management and fuel reductions, as well as natural hazards mitigation. They argued that Susanville would not be able to make ends meet without the labor of these prisoners. In addition to losing the revenue it earned from the prison, their town would also have the financial burden of paying workers to do the work that the Conservation Center had provided for free.
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 California Correctional Center and used as a reception area for other prisons, rather than as a training ground for fire camp programs. The prison grew to hold 4,400 people over the next decades, nearly four times its 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 also arranged for the construction of High Desert State Prison in their community. The Antelope Conservation Camp has remained open in their hometown. The state was under pressure to reduce its overcrowded prison system and sentencing reforms forced it to reduce the number Level 1 inmates. This has restricted the state’s ability to recruit wildfire management workers.
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 has closed Tracy’s prison and plans to close another. three more in the next three years. After incorporating it into the 2020-21 budget CAL FIRE and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released it. joint statementThe state announced the closing of eight fire camp sites, bringing the total number of fire camps in operation to 35. 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 promisedAll prison guards received a bonus and a yearly raise as a result of 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.
In the 1970s, prisoners filed lawsuits claiming that their living conditions were horrible. Their discontent culminated into a 1977 protest against the guards. Today, the facility is regarded as worse than ever by incarcerated prisoners. More than 100 people are currently incarcerated at California Correctional Center Susanville. 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 said that the roofs of buildings often leak and leave cells flooded for several days, which leads to algae and black mold growth throughout the facility. As Truthoutas previously covered in the Case of Other California Prisons, environmental justice and an excessive exposure to hazards to the health of inmates at Susanville prison are a major concern.
State expenditures will be reduced by reducing prison population and program numbers. However, more spending will be required to replace the millions of hours Conservation Camp Program hand teams have spent on controlled fires, trail maintenance and fuel reduction.
The 100 fewer available hand crews to CAL Fire has been due to the decline in incarcerated individuals. Although the Conservation Camp Program hand teams were replaced by people from the California Conservation Corps or California Military Department, the budgets for 2021 and 2022 have only been able 24 additional crews. This means that CAL FIRE still lacks about 1,000 frontline wildfire fighters 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 forest 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 idea to the next level. It trains ex-inmates to become professional firefighters. Many of the program participants were in fire camp and are eager to join CAL FIRE or their county fire departments, but face many obstacles. As Adam Mahoney, a journalist at the news site, reported, Capital BRoyal Ramey is the co-founder of the organization. He was a former inmate firefighter and speaks enthusiastically about the potential career options 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.”