The essential — and dangerous — work prisoners do

Incarcerated people respond to pandemics, wildfires, avian flu outbreaks, mudslides and more.

Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through nursing homes, exhausted medical supplies and sent the country into lockdown, prison officials gave incarcerated people their marching orders: Manufacture hand sanitizer, sew face masks, transport dead bodies, dig graves. 

The workers toiled in crowded factories, overflowing morgues and inside their own prisons, where they often lacked access to essentials like soap and adequate medical care. In the process, they became one of the most vulnerable — and yet essential — parts of the nation’s emergency response.


Seven Western states — Montana, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California and Arizona — specify incarcerated labor as a resource in their state emergency operation plans. Others, like Colorado, passed legislation in 1998 like the Inmate Disaster Relief Program, which allowed the state to use the workforce for wildfires and other emergencies. (Recently, Colorado passed a new law by the same name that requires the state’s fire division to encourage formerly incarcerated firefighters to apply for paid work in the field.) The reason is simple: “(Incarcerated workers) are extremely low-cost,” said Carlee Purdum, an assistant research professor with the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, such workers received anywhere from 14 cents to $1.41 an hour on average in 2017. And because they are technically considered a state resource, said Purdum, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, further subsidizes the cost of their labor when states are overwhelmed by natural disasters.

“I’ve seen and documented the use of incarcerated workers for a lot of different types of hazardous work.”

The workers can be tapped for nearly anything. “I’ve seen and documented the use of incarcerated workers for a lot of different types of hazardous work, from cleaning up oil spills to going through and eliminating infected birds with the avian flu,” said Purdum. “Really, anything that happens in a disaster, if it overwhelms the community, and (state or local officials) feel like they have a need, they will turn to incarcerated workers.”

But incarcerated people aren’t just vulnerable owing to the hazardous nature of the work they do; they lack the power to keep themselves safe and are forced to rely on prison officials for their well-being in dangerous situations. High Country News spoke with Purdum, who has spent her career researching the unique problems faced by incarcerated people during disasters, along with lesser-known aspects of prisoners’ labor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Carlee Purdum, an assistant research professor with the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University.
Courtesy photo

High Country News: Much of your work focuses on the vulnerability of incarcerated people when a disaster hits. What are some of the less obvious ways prison populations are impacted by an extreme weather event or natural disaster? 

Carlee Purdum: The location of prisons contributes to that vulnerability because there is a priority for cheap land, and that is often in rural areas. When prisons are impacted, it’s difficult to get resources to them. And then the characteristics of a prison itself create a lot of vulnerability: Incarcerated persons have to rely on the state and the staff at their individual unit to protect them, and that is often a very challenging thing. There are also the characteristics of incarcerated persons themselves. They are a stigmatized population, so they’re often on the lowest priority in terms of disaster resources. 

Incarcerated persons have very limited rights, so if they are told that they are going to go out and do a certain type of work, they don't have the right to refuse. If they do refuse, they can be written up with disciplinary infractions, they can be put in solitary confinement; it can have real-world impacts on them and their chances of being released. One man, Neil Ambrose, was doing debris cleanup, and there was a downed power line after a storm. The power line sparked a small fire, and the guard ordered the incarcerated persons to stomp the fire out — and when Neil did that, he was electrocuted and died. 

Even if they perceive that their health and their safety and even their lives are at risk, they don’t have a right to say, “No, we’re not going to participate in that.”

HCN: In your research, you analyzed state emergency operation plans. How are prison populations addressed in state disaster planning? 

CP: I found that incarcerated persons are viewed as a vulnerable population, a hazardous population and as a workforce. States will include some references as to how incarcerated persons need to be protected in disasters. And evacuations of prisons do happen. One example is wildfire in Western states when institutions are threatened. 

But, on the other hand, they are also viewed as a hazardous population. (And) in emergency planning, there’s a disproportionate focus on emergencies that are defined as “inmate-precipitated”— which includes hostage situations, riots, things like that. Those are more frequently included in not only in planning documents but also in emergency management within prisons.

There’s this focus on incarcerated persons perceived as being a threat, but less focus on the kinds of emergencies and disasters where incarcerated people are the survivors and need a humanitarian response. That’s been recognized as a problem in prison emergency management for the last two decades.

HCN: What are some lesser-known uses of incarcerated labor in the West that the general public might not think about?

CP:  For any major disaster that happens, there’s typically going to be some kind of role for incarcerated workers, and that's because disaster programs subsidize it.

There is a really compelling example in California, where incarcerated workers were helping with mudslides back in 2005. They pulled out more than 150 incarcerated folks from the prisons to help dig out this debris that had impacted this community. They were working alongside the cadaver dogs and other workers with specialized equipment. They were looking for possible survivors or possible deceased victims. In Nevada, incarcerated persons have been active in flooding events. On the website of (Nevada’s) Department of Corrections, they also say that their work crews were involved with recovery efforts for the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

The impact of hazards and disasters on incarcerated persons is extremely traumatic, and we just have no idea what the true toll is on people, on their health, on their relationships with their families, on their life trajectories.

A rescue crew of incarcerated people leave a memorial service at the site of a deadly mudslide on January 13, 2005, in La Conchita, California. More than 150 incarcerated individuals helped dig out debris.
David McNew/Getty Images

It’s throughout the lifecycle of disasters, too. You may not think of construction workers at the prison as being involved in disaster work, but if they’re repairing a damaged state facility, if they’re providing some kind of construction work on a damaged school — that is recovery work. In California, they’re helping to do the seismic retrofitting of buildings. That’s hazard mitigation work. They’re really involved throughout the entire lifecycle, and in disasters, that’s mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. 

HCN: Can you talk more about the people themselves and what is at stake for them?

CP: When you look at the public health impact, or even just the emotional trauma and physical harm, there are many examples of incarcerated people suffering in the context of disasters. Whenever (they) are evacuated from a facility, that can be very traumatic for family members who may have no idea where their child is, or where their husband or wife is. When evacuations happen, (prison officials) often keep that information private until the evacuation is really complete. 

Then we have these very infamous examples of the trauma that incarcerated people at the Orleans Parish prison suffered after Hurricane Katrina. They were stuck in their cells with chest-high water that was contaminated. These are people having medical emergencies. They had no access to fresh water or food, and then when some people tried to escape this very dangerous situation, they’re viewed as this threat.

The impact of hazards and disasters on incarcerated persons is extremely traumatic, and we just have no idea what the true toll is on people, on their health, on their relationships with their families, on their life trajectories. It’s an unexplored subject. There needs to be further research on how being incarcerated can impact a person’s life if they’re exposed to disasters.

HCN: What are you hoping people will take away from this research?

CP: I have talked to other organizations that are trying to put together materials for communities to be able to hold their local prisons responsible for how they interact with incarcerated persons in disasters. The environmental justice program with the NAACP put together a resource for communities after disasters to make recovery more equitable. It serves as a checklist: First, look in your community and see if incarcerated persons are being used for disaster work. And if they are, ask if that work is voluntary; ask what kind of training is being used; ask what kind of equipment like personal protective equipment incarcerated persons are being given.

I recommend people look into tools like that, look into resources like that, to make the practice more visible and to hold those agencies accountable for how they are treating people.

Incarcerated people sew protective masks at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee, California.
Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor