USA: disaster in prison

How prison labour is embedded in emergency disaster response.

Prison labour in the United States has a long history stemming from slavery. Prisoners can be forced to work inside or outside the prison, doing skilled or unskilled labour. In California fire camps1 for example, prisoners can work fighting forest fires and performing other forestry tasks. During disasters, prisoners take part in all phases of disaster work, from mitigation to recovery. They are not always forced to do this type of labour, but rather incentivised. However, the context of the detention calls into question the legitimacy of their consent.

J. Carlee Purdum is the director of the Prisons and Disasters Risk Network, which aims to inform the public about the growing impact of disasters on prisoners. She holds a PhD in sociology and is a research assistant professor at Texas A&M University. Her work concentrates on the social vulnerability of prisoners in relation to disasters, and how they are integrated into emergency plans and policies. Prison Insider asked her three questions.

  1. Conservation (fire) camps: minimum security detention facilities designed for trained prisoners to assist in responding to emergencies such as fires, floods, and other natural or manmade disasters. As of August 2022, there were 1,669 incarcerated people housed in 35 fire camps across the state. 

Whenever there is an emergency or a need for reducing costs and obtaining a large labour force, the government looks to prisons.

Private prisons are almost like a black hole of information: it is very difficult to understand how they operate or what their policies are.

Priority was given to conserving cheap labour over decongesting prisons and reducing health risks.