Selfhood in flames? Imprisonment and Cauterization in Arizona’s Prison Wildfire Program

By Lindsey Raisa Feldman

This Speaking Justice to Power installment focuses on the Americas, North and South, to foreground the divergent historical roots of the region’s new authoritarianism, now being enacted through confinement practices in numerous states. A multi-part PoLAR conversation with Karina Biondi (APLA Book Prize winner 2017), Catherine Besteman (President Emeritus, APLA) and Orisanmi Burton, complements this Speaking Justice installment’s focus on authoritarian practices of confinement and cauterization.

Photo by Lindsey Raisa Feldman.

The United States, self-mythologized for centuries as a paragon of freedom and liberty, now serves as an ironic exemplar of detention in multiple dehumanizing forms. Although the U.S. has hardened its stance regarding refugee resettlement and immigration in lockstep with other western countries (particularly those in western Europe), it stands alone in its staggering rates of incarceration. America makes up four percent of the world’s total population, but holds twenty-two percent[1] of the world’s incarcerated people behind its bars.

Detention practices in the U.S. have long reflected authoritarian ideologies centered on racialized rightlessness[2] and hyper-nationalistic insulation. The criminal justice system now serves as a vehicle for openly authoritarian American governance. Prisons operate both as physical spaces of confinement for actual bodies and also as symbolic spaces of Othering, of branding, by those who define the parameters of the regime’s moral ontology. That is to say: when the ruling class calls to lock up the “bad guys,” they are in fact claiming the power to define who is worthy or unworthy of humanity. Prisoners and detainees are thus prime examples of cauterization, a process that deadens society’s feelings and actions towards particular groups of individuals, sealing them off from social and political life and agency.

Although scrutiny of mass incarceration has increased in recent years[3], what is less discussed are the daily implications of carceral trends for those behind bars. This is not accidental: the prison has become an institutional black box in which draconian policies are enacted without public knowledge or consent.  Even less clear to the free is whether and how imprisoned people respond to and push back against such social and moral cauterization. What is important to remember is that institutions like the prison system are not monolithic; they hold cracks and fissures where light leaks into their shadowy spaces. Each day on the prison yard, incarcerated people find ways to make meaning in their lives and reject institutional processes of cauterization.

Photo by Lindsey Raisa Feldman.

My latest research project was to examine the meanings of work for incarcerated wildland firefighters in Arizona. I analyzed this particular labor program as a paradox of exploitation and transformation. On the one hand, the Inmate Wildfire Program (IWP) pays prisoners very little ($1.50/hour), compared to the $50/hour that non-prison crews are paid for the same work. Further, in similar programs like California’s prison fire program, incarcerated people are branded (by wearing orange and being cordoned off from non-prison crews), and are frequently placed on the most mundane work assignments. As such, participants are not garnering “on the line” experience that could help them find work upon release, and when they do get on the line and face risk or even death, death benefits afforded to them take years to reach the families—if they ever do at all. Thus, any analysis of the IWP must begin with the same critiques of slavery or exploitation leveled against all prison labor programs.

However, the Arizona program includes some remarkably progressive practices that differ from those listed above, which allow prison firefighters to dismantle some of the dehumanization of incarceration, even while the program exists firmly within the prison regime. The experiences of imprisoned people within this program are complex, and underscore the processual nature of detention—both how it cauterizes, and the ways individuals attempt to reject cauterization. I sought to understand whether and how this latter process occurred. I became a certified wildland firefighter and spent fifteen months on the fireline with prison crews in Arizona. Using data from interviews and observations both on the line and on the yard, I found that the determining factor of whether individuals could reject the moral and social branding of imprisonment was if they could access complex formulations of selfhood.

Prison restricts peoples’ identities in many insidiously mundane ways: each movement (or lack thereof), each interaction between guard and prisoner, each laborious activity, is designed to strip individuals of their former selves. When reflecting on the impact of prison on his identity, one incarcerated firefighter stated, “When I was in the courtroom I was a father, I was a [construction worker], I was a basketball player, I was a son. And then as soon as I got my charge, and then especially…when I got to the yard, all of that was gone. And I had to start over.” Another said, “On my first day in jail, I didn’t know that because I was from Mexico I had to be associated with la raza [a gang]. Some old [prisoner] came up to me and told me I had to join them. I didn’t have a choice anymore, I learned right there. I had a role to play. I have played it for seven years.”

Photo by Lindsey Raisa Feldman.

All of the processes of detention exist to craft an identity stripped of prisoners’ qualities beyond criminality. In essence, prison constructs the social category “prisoner,” then continues to punish those that fit that bill. Within prison as well as in the public sphere, defining criminality has implications for incarcerated people’s perceived morality and social value[4]. By constructing definitions and social characteristics of who goes to prison, not only do individuals in broader society feel free to disavow themselves of any responsibility to help prisoners, but prisoners themselves begin to think they deserve treatment as a particular kind of person. This process of social categorization by the prison system results in cauterization, also known as a sort of “existential death”[5] for those who serve time.

And yet, the cauterization of prisoners, and the social death within the prison system, is not totalizing. It is important for the public to remember this fact as one way to reject the strategies of authoritarian detention: remembering that people are in prison, who are capable of finding hope, emotional connection, and other very human meanings in their lives. This goes a long way towards refusing the idea that certain groups or classes of people can be socially branded and excluded from society. This meaning-making, this staking a claim to dignity and complex selfhood, is exactly what I found when working with fire crews in the IWP.

Individuals who participated in this program were well aware of their low pay and the barriers that faced them upon release. The 13th amendment[6] rolled deftly off their tongues in moments of frustration. Yet acute awareness of their situation did not prevent them from practicing a rather extraordinary reclamation of selfhood through the program. In my analysis, I isolated three ways that program participants intentionally crafted the IWP as a space of identity transformation: in the creation of a complex working identity, through the expression of an intimate form of masculinity relatively unheard of on the prison yard, and through the immersion into non-carceral spaces (both physically and symbolically). To draw on the last of these as an example, IWP crewmembers utilize immense amounts of critical thinking and analytical skills (diametrically opposed to the monotonous “labor” of most prison jobs), are enmeshed in anti-carceral landscapes through the daily work of wildland firefighting, work side-by-side with correctional officers (often usurping them in expertise, creating intricate working dynamics that defy normative prison/guard relationships), and wear no physical markers of incarceration (unlike in California). They thus might find themselves being applauded in restaurants, or chit-chatting with rural homeowners. One prison firefighter described his initial paranoia when he interacted with the public in his job, after spending many years behind bars. He recalled, “I didn’t want anyone to look at me ‘cause I was worried what they would think.  But then I realized it wasn’t bad, when they wanted to make eye contact with me or talk to me. It was just that they were seeing me. I was being seen like a human being again.”

Photo: Lindsey Raisa Feldman

The impact of this public interaction goes beyond a simple “feel good” story. It is a fundamental re-inscription of social cauterization for both prisoners and the broader public. This differentiates the IWP from other labor programs, like service dog training, or even social programs like creative writing workshops, where prisoners conduct personally meaningful work still hidden in the confines of the prison yard. The IWP allows everyone involved to re-consider what being a prisoner means. The lack of any identifying clothing or linguistic markers provides a symbolic fluidity for those who participate. This, in turn, provides emotional and psychological room for crewmembers to question who they are, or who they can choose to be, questions not often posed in the prison context. The cauterization of criminality is crafted through policies, language, and embodied procedures each day for people in prison. Therefore, the conscious refusal of this cauterization time and time again on the crew serves an important process in the opening of new senses of self and self-relation.

The IWP program is small, and it is exceptional in its practices and paradoxes. However, this unique view from inside the prison system contributes to debates on the increasingly dire national policies and politics surrounding detention more broadly. Specifically, it allows us insight into the daily meaning-making of incarcerated people, and as such, gives the public a more comprehensive set of parameters to frame our dissent. The public outcry against the current crisis of detention centers on the U.S./Mexico border has been swift and severe, and appropriately emphasizes the utter inhumanity of detaining those whom society deems most innocent: children. Yet, when considering the implications of detention in our society, there is a much longer moral spectrum. Should we advocate equally for families who seek asylum from decades of state violence lawfully and for those here without documentation? Should we approach discussions about the reunification of children with parents the same way as we do the single man seeking a new life on his own?

I believe that a deep consideration of imprisonment offers us two main ways to challenge authoritarian ideologies of detention and cauterization. First, those of us who are free must speak up for those who are detained, including those detainees who are more socially risky to advocate for. By steadfastly including those in prison in our definition of humanity, we openly defy the effects of anti-democratic, racially-biased, and violent state policies. Individuals who are already labeled “criminal” have a right to maintain their dignity, particularly in the face of authoritarian practices of detainment, exclusion, and cauterization in the modern US prison system. The second way to challenge such ideologies is by acknowledging the transformative work of incarcerated people themselves. This can be seen through the daily meaning-making of IWP members, and can be seen especially clearly in the recent U.S. prison strike.[7] My work has analyzed the connections between work and identity rather than offering an analysis of the political economy of prison labor, yet this is a clear and pressing point. By striking against the conditions of their carceral existence, imprisoned people participating in the strike define themselves as valued laborers as well as political agents. They re-define themselves not as cauterized “criminals” but as human beings with legitimate claims to dignity. Their fight must become ours, not only to improve the material conditions of their work, but also to reorient the symbolic implications of detention writ large: as the freedom of those behind bars emerges, so does ours.

Dr. Lindsey Raisa Feldman is an Assistant Professor of Applied Anthropology at the University of Memphis. In her latest research project, she offered a case study of Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program to argue that prisons are spaces full of institutional contradiction and that incarcerated individuals are capable of finding cracks in the dehumanizing foundation of modern imprisonment. Dr. Feldman is in the preliminary stages of designing her next project, which will be a mixed-methods applied research project on prison re-entry, work, and masculine identity.



[1] Walmsley, Roy. 2013. World Prison Population List. International Centre for Prison Studies, available:

[2] Cacho, Lisa Marie. 2012. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: New York University Press.

[3] See: Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

[4] Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

[5] Jose-Kampfner, Christina. 1990. “Coming to Terms with Existential Death: An Analysis of Women’s Adaptation to Life in Prison.” In Social Justice 17(2):110-125.

[6] The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

[7] For a broad overview of the prison strike and its goals, this video offers a summary:

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