When Arizona catches fire, prisoners step up

In one of the West’s harshest penal systems, incarcerated wildfire fighters learn to see themselves anew.

Ernie Tilley began fighting wildfires seven years ago while in prison for a drug offense. He could have made twice as much doing something else, but most other prison work is menial.

“There’s just not a lot of opportunities to learn and build experience doing something that’s worthwhile when you’re in that sort of environment,” Tilley, a circumspect man in his early 30s with blue eyes and short auburn hair, recently told me. In contrast, on a fire assignment, “You’re working hard, you’re in a good environment, you’re learning stuff, you’re building yourself, you’re making yourself better.”  

In time, he became a squad boss. “As a leader, it was a great experience getting all those people in that mindset, and getting them in the position to accomplish all those goals together,” he recalled. “It was fun.”

Tilley, who was released from prison in 2017, spoke to me last summer from New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, where he was working as a seasonal wildfire fighter. This summer, he started a permanent firefighting position in Alabama with the U.S. Forest Service.

 

For prisoners like Tilley, wildfire crews are a rare spark of hope in a dark system. Arizona’s prisons are notoriously callous: According to Corene Kendrick, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Prison Law Office, as other states move toward restorative justice, Arizona is locking up ever more people — even first-time offenders — under mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent offenses, such as drug use, shoplifting or drunk driving, with little possibility of time off for good behavior. Kendrick said that’s despite plenty of research showing that “extremely tough and long sentences, especially for low-level offenses, don’t reduce crime.”

Arizona’s draconian policies mean that its state prisoners and county jail inmates have faced unusual mental and physical hardships — fewer than three meals a day, for example, or lack of access to menstrual products. Indeed, Kendrick’s organization and others have repeatedly challenged the state for failing to make court-ordered reforms regarding mental and physical care, such as allowing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement to leave their cells for an adequate amount of time each day.

Last summer, prisoners in Arizona joined others nationwide in protesting for everything from fair wages to more rehabilitation programs and an end to racially biased sentencing. In May, The Appeal, a nonprofit criminal justice news website, reported that Arizona prisoners who overdose will now have to pay the cost of emergency medical intervention, including overtime for prison staff. A local ABC affiliate reported in April that in one Arizona prison, cell doors have been unlocked for years. Correctional officers have been assaulted and one prisoner has died.

But even amid these chaotic and oppressive conditions, participants in Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program come to believe that they, and their future lives, can be different. It’s the rare program supported by prisoners and correctional officers alike, notwithstanding the exploitative system of which it’s a part.

A helicopter picks up an Arizona State Prison Complex fire crew for deployment near Tucson.
Arizona Department of Corrections

ARIZONA'S CURRENT INMATE WILDFIRE PROGRAM began with two crews in 1984. Over the last three decades, approximately 2,000 prisoners have gone through the program. At its height, following the devastating 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which burned more than 426,000 acres in northeastern Arizona, the program had 15 crews; today, it has 12, including one from Arizona’s women’s prison, working year-round for far below minimum wage.

Away from the prison yard, in pine forests and desert grasslands, Arizona’s incarcerated wildfire fighters battle blazes; in towns, they clear flammable vegetation from around people’s homes. They work side-by-side with professional wildfire fighters, assist with search and rescue, and even lead crews.

The work is a way for prisoners to feel they are giving back to society. It’s also hard, underpaid and dangerous: In 1990, five incarcerated wildfire fighters and a correctional officer died in a blaze in Arizona’s White Mountains.

The work is a way for prisoners to feel they are giving back to society. It’s also hard, underpaid and dangerous.

According to Phillip “Flip” Elliott, an assistant fire management officer with Arizona’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management, the program, jointly run by his agency and the Arizona Department of Corrections, was a solution to two problems: the rising costs of wildland firefighting, and a shortage of firefighters. Prison firefighters make $1.50 an hour on fires, compared to $30 earned by professionals. Each crew saves Arizona money, even as historic fire suppression and climate change make the state’s wildfires more frequent and catastrophic. (State officials did not provide requested information about how much money incarcerated fire crews save Arizona, but according to The New York Times, they save California some $80 million each year.)

The program, which wasn’t designed with rehabilitation in mind, “is not black-or-white,” according to Kendrick. She’s spoken with incarcerated firefighters who really appreciate being able to camp and work outside, getting fit and giving back to society. “But on the other hand, it is exploitative, in that they are doing the same or tougher work as firefighters who aren’t prisoners, and they are getting paid a fraction of the money, and they don’t get on-the-job protection like regular firefighters do,” she said.

Crewmembers from an Arizona Department of Corrections fire crew look out from a community bonfire, where they managed the flames.
Lindsey Raisa Feldman. See more of her photos in an upcoming photo essay in the journal Crime, Media, Culture.

The fire crews are part of a wider system that relies on cheap labor — a system that exists thanks to the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which made slavery illegal, except as punishment for a crime. Arizona’s prisoners, many of whom are incarcerated owing to mandatory drug sentences, are on the hook for at least 40 hours per week of hard labor for wages as low as 10 cents per hour — though they often receive much less after prison deductions. They lack basic rights like workers’ compensation or fair wages. Prisoners make only $1.50 per hour fighting fires, and less when they are clearing brush — so little, Tilley explained, “you don’t really think about what you’re getting paid.”

Still, the fire crews offer one of the few job-training opportunities available to prisoners. Indeed, in 2018, Arizona created the Phoenix fire crew, which employs formerly incarcerated firefighters as full-time state employees. But even for prisoners who don’t want to keep fighting wildfires after they get out — because they’re getting on in years, or don’t want to spend any additional time away from home, or can’t leave the state while on parole — the program points to a hopeful future, despite its fundamentally exploitative basis.

“A lot of them are like, ‘You know, this is the first time I’ve learned leadership skills or I’ve learned to work on a team,’ ” Kendrick said.

Several months prior to his release from a state prison in May, Jeremy Campbell effusively described the transformation he’d experienced as a firefighter and squad boss. A polite man with cropped red hair and brown eyes framed by brown glasses, Campbell applied to be on his first wildfire fighting crew about five years ago. In prison for the third time on a drug-related offense, Campbell hadn’t spent much time exploring the outdoors, though he’d done similarly hands-on work: construction, mechanics, metalwork. In prison, he missed the “ruggedness” of those occupations.

“When you’re in prison, you don’t have a whole lot of options where you can really feel like you’re doing something real with your hands,” said Campbell, speaking to me over a prison phone from Florence, Arizona. He was monitored by a correctional officer, but seemed to genuinely support the program.

When he initially signed up, “it was all about the job and the sort of things I could do to entertain my time,” Campbell said. But the program was transformative. “You get in, and you’re just working and doing really cool things, and before you know it, you’re really buying into the program. You begin to behave differently in a group and think differently. Your life changes.” Eventually, as squad boss, Campbell found himself responsible for the safety of others.

“You get in, and you’re just working and doing really cool things, and before you know it, you’re really buying into the program. You begin to behave differently in a group and think differently. Your life changes.” 

Now in his early 40s, Campbell acknowledged that he’s made mistakes and lived a “selfish lifestyle” in the past. But thanks to the wildfire program, he believes he’s become a different person. “I would say that today, selfish is the very last thing I am, and I credit a lot of that to my time on this crew,” he said. Ahead of his release, Campbell had high hopes for his future, in large part because of his experiences as a wildfire fighter.

Despite the low pay, Campbell said he did not feel exploited: “I feel empowered — not only with each day, I feel empowered about the rest of my life.” Being on a fire crew changed his thinking and behavior, from his first, frightening fire, to his eventual role as a leader. “I’ve learned to deal differently with conflict,” he said. “I don’t hold any sort of negative feelings.” Campbell said he rose each morning in prison in a good mood. His attitude was, “Even though we’re here, we’re making the best of the situation.”

The work came with a prison rarity — respect. “Even though we are incarcerated, we get to be treated like human beings,” Campbell said. “We’re out on the fireline with professionals who are civilians, and we’re looked at like capable firefighters — we’re not treated like inmates. We’re treated like professionals out there to do a job and it’s …” Campbell paused. “It’s really nice. You know, you don’t often get that when you’re back on the unit. It’s a really cool experience.”

A crew from Florence State Prison works the Sawmill Fire in 2017 in southern Arizona.
Arizona Department of Corrections

STEPHANIE CLARK, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR of Vermont Law School’s Center for Justice Reform, said it makes sense that Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program could be transformative. Not only does it give prisoners opportunities to change personally through their work, it changes how other people view them.

Prisoners dress the same as and work alongside other wildfire fighters. “That is changing somebody’s lens of who they are. … No one will be evaluated based on being an inmate,” Clark said.

The Inmate Wildfire Program doesn’t create a space for restorative justice, Clark explained, because it doesn’t hinge on a reckoning between crime victims and offenders.

But in a state where ever more prisoners are locked up for nonviolent crimes, perhaps it provides a space, however flawed, for prisoner resilience.

Above all, prison is dehumanizing. But wildfire fighting resists that dehumanization. Wildfire fighters must be alert, making split-second decisions, questioning orders that may put lives at risk, and taking responsibility for the well-being of fellow crewmembers. In other words, fire crews provide a place where prisoners can feel human again, according to University of Memphis anthropologist Lindsey Raisa Feldman, who interviewed Arizona’s incarcerated wildfire fighters for her doctoral research at the University of Arizona.

“When a person goes to prison, their identity is stripped to a very base level,” Feldman said. She described prisoners as socially “cauterized,” sealed off from the rest of society. “They’re considered other, they’re considered less than, often ... and they’re kind of stripped to their bare non-humanness, you know?” The fire program directly challenges that process, she said.

Feldman’s research tracked such differences: Awaiting their parents’ return from prison, children of incarcerated wildfire fighters sometimes only want to buy toy fire trucks. Local residents give standing ovations to the prisoners who defend their homes from flames. Watching them catch butterflies and identify species, homeowners reconsider the doubts they’ve harbored about the chainsaw-wielding prisoners who’ve come to clear their property of fire fuels.

The story of the Inmate Wildfire Program is really about how people carve out space to maintain dignity in the prison labor system, Feldman said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Feldman’s research emerged in part from her older sister’s incarceration, which occurred throughout her own childhood. She attributes the pushback she received from other academics when she embarked on her research to unconscious biases against prison populations.

Feldman was initially skeptical that a wildfire program, which pays so little for such dangerous, difficult work, could benefit the men and women who took part. To this day, Feldman opposes prison labor programs. “I personally can’t justify a prison labor program, just straight-up,” she said. “I think that anytime you involve paying an incarcerated person so little or (nothing) at all, it’s already too morally bankrupt.” But she came to recognize the complex reality of prison wildfire crews. As part of her research, Feldman spent just over one year working as a firefighter embedded with Department of Corrections crews. (When Feldman approached the crews for her research, prisoners and correctional officers alike made it clear that if she wasn’t fighting fires with them, she wasn’t welcome.) Though the system is unjust, Feldman saw men transformed by respect, responsibility and freedom. “What I saw on the fire crews was incredibly powerful,” Feldman told me.

A firefighter from an Arizona Department of Corrections crew works a night burn.
Lindsey Raisa Feldman

She’d like to see more opportunities for that kind of personal transformation among prisoners — minus the exploitation. “If you can have those things but not in a labor program, you can allow people to access dignity and complex identity without the weight of the labor,” she said.

The program’s transformative power comes in large part from how the crews operate: Incarcerated wildfire fighters work side-by-side with non-incarcerated firefighters and correctional officers. Because of the high risks associated with fires, they are encouraged by correctional officers to think critically about orders and question authority. In other states, such as California, prisoners wear orange jumpsuits that stand out from their officers’ uniforms, even on fire details. In Arizona, prisoners and officers on the fireline wear the same clothes. “If you’re fighting fire and the fire’s gonna overrun you, fire doesn’t distinguish between orange and brown,” Elliott said.

He agreed that the crews are transformative. “I think a lot of these guys have never been pushed to the limits that they are when they’re on this crew,” Elliott said. “Once they see what they can do physically and mentally when they’re on these crews, it really changes them. They say, ‘Wow, if I can do this, I can do just about anything.’ ”

“That vulnerability … lends itself to very close relationships forming. … They have this space which is not the prison yard, where they can show each other very close, very caring relationships.”

Feldman found that prisoners who fight fires come to think of themselves differently, developing a sense of identity rooted in valuable work, rather than the identity of “inmate” the penal system gives them.

For example, during fire details — fast-paced situations where crewmembers rely on each other for safety — prisoners can access emotions that are off-limits to men on the yard. “It’s an incredibly vulnerable job, because you’re at risk of dying every day,” Feldman said. “That vulnerability … lends itself to very close relationships forming. … They have this space which is not the prison yard, where they can show each other very close, very caring relationships.”

And as they work outside, clearing brush in town to protect homes, or camping in the desert waiting to be called out on a blaze, crewmembers can experience nature in transformative ways. Outdoors, working side-by-side with other community members, prisoners develop a new sense of personal value.

Being a wildfire fighter was even transformative for Feldman. “I was never a thrill-seeker,” she said. “I wear dresses, I paint my nails, you know? I was not planning on fighting fires.” On her first fire, Feldman found herself slogging up a mountain toward flames in 115-degree weather, carrying about 60 pounds of equipment, a prison breakfast heavy in her stomach, questioning her research choices. “The thing I learned, much to my chagrin, was that fires start on top of mountains, believe it or not, because that’s where lightning strikes,” Feldman recalled. “I was like, ‘Fuck, I wouldn’t have done this dissertation if I knew that!’ ” To her embarrassment, she threw up on the hike — but she kept going. “By the time we made it back down, the guys were joking with me,” she said. “We were all laughing. They were like, ‘That’s so awesome that you did it!’ ”

Feldman believes that Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program could inform prison programs elsewhere, ideally by encouraging opportunities for change that don’t require underpaid labor. She believes this would lead to less recidivism and greater success after prison, an idea she’s currently researching.

She frequently saw crewmembers push beyond their designation as felons, whether by poring over nature guides, or massaging each other’s sore backs. One hot day, a fire crew clearing vegetation from an empty lot next to a Walmart found a nest of roadrunner eggs in a low-growing shrub, just starting to hatch. The sweltering day had been especially challenging, she said. “It was a relatively urban space, there were a lot of needles, a lot of beer bottles, and for these men who have problems with addiction, they very much loathe having to work in this place, because it was a constant reminder — like they’d be tossing to the side a Coors Lite (can), when they’re in prison for killing a friend, for a DUI car crash. So it was relatively traumatic.”

The man who spotted the eggs was in his late 50s and had been in prison for perhaps two decades. “If you looked at his rap sheet, he would look horrifying to a person,” Feldman said. “He had been in and out, he had committed violent crimes, like robbery and assault. He had tattoos all over his face.” But when the man found the nest, he yelled to the rest of the crew to stop everything and come look. Over the course of hours, crewmembers took turns sneaking up to check on the progress of the hatchlings, as their mother stalked about nervously. For some of the men, the little beaks and cracking eggs led to conversations about the rebirth and transformations they hoped to undergo. It struck Feldman profoundly.

“Even within this inherently exploitative system, which is the prison, individuals are very capable of finding meaning in their lives,” Feldman said.

Members of an Arizona Department of Corrections fire crew rest on the fireline.
Lindsey Raisa Feldman. See more of her photos in an upcoming photo essay in the journal Crime, Media, Culture.

ONCE THEY LEAVE PRISON, the wildfire fighters face a host of challenges, from legal employment and housing discrimination, to disenfranchisement. In a 2017 op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, R, predicted post-release employment on the Phoenix crew would lower recidivism rates, saving both money and property for taxpayers. Last winter, an incarcerated crew harvested the Arizona Capitol’s Christmas tree.

Because correctional officers listened in on most interviews for this reporting with current and former prisoners, it’s impossible to say whether any concerns were stifled by self-censorship. Participants mentioned the low wages as something that they would like to see changed, and Campbell suggested awarding incarcerated wildfire fighters reduced sentences, a policy that California has adopted. And, at the end of the day, participants still live in one of the West’s most punitive prison systems.

Whatever the program’s potential shortcomings, though, Campbell saw each new crew member as “an opportunity to touch one more life.” Just as he hoped that his new sense of purpose and direction would help him avoid future drug offenses, Campbell believed that everyone who makes it onto a crew can “change the way they behave, so they don’t have to come back.”

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News. Email her at mayak@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor 

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.