Where the incarceration and wildfire crises meet

Prison firefighters are severely underpaid. And they’re the lucky ones.


The United States incarcerates about 2.3 million people per year, more per capita than any other country, a full quarter of the world’s total prison population. For every 100,000 people living in the U.S., 698 are in jail. We as a nation have chosen to deprive thousands upon thousands upon thousands of men and women of their liberty — one of our highest ideals — with little reflection or remorse. Imprisoned men and women suffer mental and physical breakdowns inside and the disintegration of family outside. Their children do worse in school, and their partners suffer emotionally and financially. Once they are free, most former inmates can’t vote (yet another ideal taken from them), and many have trouble finding meaningful work. America’s prison system represents a deep moral failure, but we appear mostly fine with it, and with the $80 billion per year we spend on corrections.

Crewmembers from an Arizona Department of Corrections fire crew look out from a community bonfire, where they managed the flames.
Lindsey Raisa Feldman

The problem is just as dispiriting in the West, if not more so. Montana, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Arizona have even higher per capita incarceration rates than the nation as a whole, with Arizona at the top. Nearly 43,000 people are imprisoned in Arizona, in a system that is notoriously cruel, negligent and understaffed. In May, Democratic lawmakers called for the firing of Chuck Ryan, the director of the state’s Department of Corrections.

Yet amid all this comes a surprising opportunity: wildland firefighting. As Associate Editor Maya L. Kapoor writes in this issue, Arizona prisoners who are allowed to fight fires come to see themselves in a new way. Though they are severely underpaid for their work (yet another moral failure), prisoners find a new sense of self on Arizona’s firelines. The work they do is important, and, because there is no prison garb in firefighting, the public views them as heroes. Even their children look at them differently.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News
Maya’s story forces us to rethink our assumptions about prisons and those who are kept behind their walls. But it also asks that we confront a glaring paradox: While the chance to do meaningful work may be good for the prisoners, the low pay they receive is inexcusable. Yet if prisoners were paid fair wages, the entire prison system would collapse. The only ethical response is a review of the entire system, one of the worst in the world, and a stain on American ideals. The next time you see news of a fire, or, worse, the glow of one on the horizon, think about the men and women fighting that fire. Ask yourself: How many prisoners are up there in the heat and dirt, dust and smoke, caught in a system so cruel that this is the best they can hope for? Then ask yourself: Can we not do better?


High Country News Classifieds