Title

Anti-heroes, wildfire, and the complex visibility of prison labor

Abstract

The vast majority of prison labor goes unnoticed by the public, serving as a microcosm of the invisibility of prisoners as a whole. This perpetuates stereotypical media representations and public perceptions of prison laborers as nothing more than their indentured subjugation. This photo essay presents a more nuanced view of the experience of prison labor. I present images of an exceptional labor program, Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program, in order to question what happens when prison labor becomes visible, and when the symbolic markers of incarceration disappear. The program, in which 11 prison crews fight wildfires across the state, is an experiential paradox for its participants. It is at once exploitative, with its low pay for risky work, as well as transformative, with its potential for a re-emergence of complex identities and reclamation of dignity for those involved. Through these images, I argue that the transformative potential of the program is due in part to the program’s visibility, as incarcerated firefighters interact with the public—and their own self-representations—in emergent, meaningful ways. I call to examine the complexities of programs that challenge certain dehumanizing experiences of incarceration while being securely entrenched within the carceral regime.

Publication Title

Crime, Media, Culture

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