Paradise Lost

Climate change, disability rights, and prison labor


in Features • Illustrated by Nina Pagano


On September 9, 2020, my mom sent me a video message that showed a reddish Mars-like sky, the smoke from the wildfires in Northern California making day look like night. It was yet another apocalyptic vision from 2020. 

Hey Jen . . . so that’s the picture of Sausalito’s sky at 11 am. Very ominous from the smoke from the fires . . . so I’m staying inside. I don’t have to go out today. Haven’t gone out for the last couple days except to water, and I am hopeful that this smog will lift and daylight will come out again. 

When I watched the video, I was relieved that she had been staying inside. She usually drives around Marin County performing check-ins with her clients with disabilities, whom she helps with independent living skills. They all have needed extra help during the Covid crisis, from setting up technology so they can remain connected to their day programs to navigating obstacles getting food and medicine, and going to doctor’s appointments. I have always been proud of the work my mother does, but the combination of Covid and the dangerous air quality from the forest fires makes me worry about her. She is almost 72, with asthma and diabetes.  “You’re in a high-risk group — please be vigilant,” I remind her. She has been wheezing a bit recently, but she says that acupuncture has been helping. 

The five largest wildfires in the history of California have occurred since 2018, and seven of the top ten have happened since 2017. Three of the five most destructive fires have happened since 2017. Those three fires alone have destroyed more than 26,000 homes and other structures. In a span of just ten months in 2020, Cal Fire and partner agencies dealt with more than 9,000 fire incidents that burned 4.1 million acres, destroyed 10,000 buildings, and killed 31 people. Climate change is intensifying the number and severity of these fires, through hotter and longer summers and increased droughts. As David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, “Over the last five decades, the wildfire season in the western United States has already grown by two and a half months . . . Globally, just since 1979, the season has grown by nearly 20 percent, and American wildfires now burn twice as much land as they did as recently as 1970. By 2050, destruction from wildfires is expected to double again . . . For every additional degree of global warming, it could quadruple.”  

A Cal Fire captain said, “We don’t even call it Fire Season anymore . . . It’s year-round.” And because of climate change, the presence of mega-fires — fires burning more than 100,000 acres — is the new normal. The largest fire in history, The August Complex Fire in 2020, demanded new language.  It was not a mega-fire, but a giga-fire, burning more than one million acres. 

Prison labor plays an integral part in California’s wildfire defense. Several states have inmate firefighters, but California has the most. California inmates who have less than five years remaining on their sentence, no history of escape, and are not imprisoned for sexual offenses or arson are eligible to apply for the firefighting program. Quoted in an August 22, 2020 New York Times article by Thomas Fuller, Brice Bennett, a spokesperson for Cal Fire said, “Inmate fire crews are absolutely imperative to our ability to create hand line and do arduous work on our fires. They are a tremendous resource.” California has come to rely on inmate labor to fight fires, in the midst of shrinking state budgets. Fuller also writes, 

The California prisons department estimates that its Conservation Camp Program, which includes the inmate firefighters, saves California taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. Hiring firefighters to replace them, especially given the difficult work involved, would challenge a state already strapped for cash.  

Should prisoners be employed to fight fires? The inmates are paid between $2.90 and $5.12 a day and an extra $1 an hour when they are on the front lines, fighting an active fire, a minuscule fraction of what their non-inmate counterparts make. Their labor helps the state but up until September 2020 and the passage of AB 2147, inmate firefighters didn’t have a viable path to working as a firefighter post-incarceration. With the passage of that bill, nonviolent offenders who worked in fire camps can have their records expunged so that they can have an opportunity to be a firefighter after their time in prison.  

While the program seems to offer inmates the chance to do meaningful work, when compared to the non-inmate population, it is clear that the state is exploiting inmate labor to serve their own needs. Such exploitation is coupled with possible involuntary pressure to undertake the dangerous work of firefighting. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation states that “an inmate must volunteer for the fire camp program; no one is involuntarily assigned to work in a fire camp.” While that is technically correct, it ignores possible economic and social pressures. Even though inmate firefighters get paid a small fraction of those who are not incarcerated, they make much more than inmates who work at other jobs. In 2018, the hourly wage for California prisoners performing plant operations work ranged from $.08 to $.37 an hour. Also, the inmates’ work in the fire camps adds up to early release time; for each day served as an inmate firefighter, they get two fewer days on their sentence. The combination of early release credits plus higher hourly wages for firefighting work makes the voluntary nature of this work not so clear. 

Although the increasing numbers of fires have put inmate firefighters in the spotlight, using prisoners as labor is nothing new. Barbara Yaley’s Habits of Industry: Labor and Penal Policy in California, 1849-1940 outlines the rise of the prison as a form of punishment in California. Extending political economist and criminologist Georg Rusche’s “labor market” theory of punishment and his thesis that “under conditions of labor scarcity the prison is a significant weapon of capitalist exploitation,” Yaley looks at how convict labor literally helped create California’s economy from the ground up. Her work aims to “understand imprisonment as a mechanism for containing and regulating a fraction of the reserve army of labor which, under advanced capitalism, is a permanent, structural feature of the labor market.”   

Yaley’s work is an important historical analysis of political-economic dynamics of punishment and helps readers understand how prison labor fits in a capitalist society. Her thesis is embodied in the State’s use of the inmate firefighter. But I want to go further and say that prison justice, disability justice, and climate justice are inextricably linked. Besides the prison workforce, there is another major group who are systematically given submarket wages for their labor — the population with disabilities. Access to the labor force, employment protections, and accommodations expanded tremendously for people with disabilities with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but there are major loopholes in the law. Companies that only employ people with disabilities, called sheltered workshops, can legally pay their disabled employees less than the federal minimum wage. As Sarah Katz writes in The Atlantic in “Biden’s Disability Plan Could Close the Equal Pay Loophole:”

Today, more than 1,200 employers nationwide employ more than 300,000 workers with disabilities in below-minimum-wage jobs, in which they often perform menial labor, such as shredding newspapers and counting bolts and nuts. These employers are supposed to transition workers with disabilities into the mainstream workforce, but many fail to do so. Only 5 percent of workers — most of whom have developmental and intellectual disabilities — ever find employment outside the workshop. 

A cornerstone of President-elect Biden’s Disability Plan is working with Congress to pass the bipartisan Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, sponsored by Democratic senator Bob Casey. This bill includes grants to help states phase out of subminimum wages for workers with disabilities and increase workforce integration. This will be a large step for lessening workplace discrimination for people with disabilities. There has been progress elsewhere, even before this bill is passed — a few states, starting with Vermont, have already abolished subminimum wages for those with disabilities. And on September 17, 2020, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to the program that allows this wage loophole. 

The prison population and the disabled workforce face similar types of labor exploitation — their oppression and freedom from those oppressions are entwined. But there are also large overlaps in the populations themselves. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2011-2012, 32 percent of prisoners had at least one disability, and about 20 percent of prisoners had a cognitive disability. Prisoners were three times more likely than the general population to have a disability.  These numbers are even higher for the population in jails, a shorter-term incarceration for less serious crimes. 

Climate justice is connected to disability justice not least because the environment is crucial in the concept of what a disability is. Models of disability have transitioned over time from a medical model to a social model to a combination of the two. This is important because, in order for policymakers and activists to help vulnerable populations, the first step is to accurately identify and count those populations. The original Medical Model of Disability was very individual-focused — “disability” resided completely in people’s bodies as impairments. In the 1970s, a group of activists, led by paraplegics in wheelchairs, countered that assumption and created the Social Model of Disability. In their articulation, disability was all about the environment. It was the environment that disables you, not your own body. Then, as more attention was paid to chronic illnesses, autoimmune diseases, and mental illness, activists highlighted the gaps in the Social Model. Even though the environment was crucial, it was not everything. Some types of disability did in fact reside in the body. This led to combining the important parts of both models and the World Health Organization created the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) concepts in 2002. The ICF guide states: 

Disability is a complex phenomena that is both a problem at the level of a person’s body, and a complex and primarily social phenomena. Disability is always an interaction between features of the person and features of the overall context in which the person lives, but some aspects of disability are almost entirely internal to the person, while another aspect is almost entirely external. In other words, both medical and social responses are appropriate to the problems associated with disability; we cannot wholly reject either kind of intervention. 

By environment, the original proponents of the Social Model of Disability meant physical barriers like stairs and lack of curb cuts, as well as other people’s restrictive thoughts about what people with disabilities could achieve and do.  But the environment also includes climate and climate change. 

Climate change is affecting all populations at a rapidly increasing rate, but it is disproportionately affecting the disabled community. In Fall 2019, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) turned off power for days, giving affected communities very little notice. PG&E’s stated intention was to prevent forest fires. However, this brownout not only had economic effects on people with disabilities, who have a higher likelihood of poverty and reliance on government assistance but also had life-and-death consequences. Some people with disabilities need breathing machines, elevators, and other devices to not only improve their quality of life but to survive. And these devices need electricity. This example is only one of the many ways that the needs of people with disabilities must be addressed when policymakers tackle climate change. Marcie Roth, the CEO for The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies states, “Almost all efforts to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on people with disabilities view the problem and solution as a health and medical “problem,” not a human rights imperative. This is a recipe for failure. There is an urgent and immediate need for a wholesale shift toward human rights, social justice, inclusion, and universal accessibility.”  

Climate change not only exacerbates the lives and livelihoods of people with disabilities but it is itself a factor in disability. There are direct links from climate change to more destructive forest fires to increased prevalence of disability. As quoted in The Uninhabitable Earth, “Each year, globally, between 260,000 and 600,000 people die from smoke from wildfires, and Canadian fires have been linked to spikes in hospitalizations as far away as the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.” In September 2020, due to the presence of many wildfires, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle had the worst air quality of the major cities in the world, according to IQAir, and some of the rural surroundings were even worse.  

Climate migration will affect the lives of people with disabilities, but the scarcity it will bring in its wake will also affect levels of crime and imprisonment. Prison populations have a greater prevalence of disability than the general population, and prison living quarters lead to increases in the number and severity of health crises. Mass incarceration is a public health crisis. And so the cycle continues and the interconnectedness strengthens. 

We need a collective response to deal with these issues and the first step is recognizing that our fates are bound together. As Maria Cristina Garcia says, “Climate change is a threat multiplier.” The wildfires in California and beyond are just the most recent reminders that there is a need for a more complex understanding of climate’s impacts on marginalized communities, including incarcerated people and people with disabilities. There is a saying in the disability rights community: “Nothing about us without us” — a clarion call for agency and self-determination. But I hope it will also serve as a battle cry for interconnectedness. There needs to be a recognition that we are all part of the us.  •


Jennifer Tennant is a health economist and essayist, living in Ithaca, New York. Her essays and op-eds have been published in Pleiades, Inside Higher Ed, The Smart Set, A Velvet Giant, and Hoxie Gorge Review. Her website is