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Dark, Smoky Cells: As Wildfires Threaten More Prisons, the Incarcerated Ask Who Will Save Their Lives

by Alleen Brown

With flames bearing down on the remote California town of Susanville in August 2021, residents were getting ready to evacuate. The Dixie Fire, the state’s second-largest blaze ever, had already been wreaking havoc on the main business in town: the two state prisons, each with capacities in the thousands, that call Susanville home. The wildfire had taken out power lines supplying the prisons, with the California Correctional Center’s C-Yard hit particularly hard: The facility’s backup generator had failed, and the people incarcerated there had been without lights for nearly a month.

No power meant no cooking, no televisions to furnish a distraction. Time in the communal day room was scrapped. Prisoners could only rarely call their loved ones. Toilets stopped working for hours at a time, and the ventilation systems would go down as smoke wafted into the facility, according to two people incarcerated there at the time. (A California prisons official said the facility was “running full-power operations.”)

Now, with the Dixie Fire approaching, incarcerated people in the C-Yard were locked in their dark, smoky cells. Cell doors, normally electronically powered, were in some cases padlocked by guards, according to a man incarcerated at the C-Yard, who asked for anonymity to avoid reprisals. He said the guards dismissed prisoners’ concerns about how to open the locks if the flames came into the prison complex: “The COs would laugh at us and tell us, ‘You effers are going to stay in your cell.’”

No one in the C-Yard, five buildings constructed to house hundreds of people, had any idea if, when, or how they would get out if the flames encroached on the prison campus. “We never had any evacuation drills,” said Joseph Vejar, a prisoner at California Correctional Center who served as chair of the inmate advisory council; he says he discussed the fire and the generator failure with prison officials. Vejar said he was never shown the details of the prison’s emergency protocols: “I never heard of them having a plan for evacuation.”

While most people in places threatened by wildfires can flee — some residents in the Susanville area did last August — imprisoned populations, by definition, do not have control over their movements. They are instead at the mercy of the state. Absent any details about evacuation plans, prisoners and their advocates across California are skeptical that meaningful arrangements exist.

In Susanville, a fire event was foreseeable. Using U.S. Forest Service data, The Intercept mapped wildfire risk against the locations of more than 6,500 prisons, jails, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers listed in a 2020 Department of Homeland Security register. The analysis showed that the California Correctional Center falls in the 90th percentile for wildfire danger in the nation.

With its vast expanse, enormous population, and hot, dry climate, California is the state with the most detention facilities at the highest risk levels: About a fifth of the state’s institutions are above the 95th percentile, according to The Intercept’s analysis. (The count includes a couple dozen small fire camps, where incarcerated firefighters are trained and work, that are by design in the most fire-prone areas.)

Meanwhile, wildfires in California have been getting worse — larger and more destructive, with each fire season coming earlier than the last. Warming temperatures and drought exacerbated by the climate crisis are creating an ever more parched landscape, leaving swaths of land ready to ignite.

“The California prison system should figure out the most high-risk prisons,” said Joe Scott, a wildfire researcher, “and make a plan.”

“At first he suspected
some kind of error”

In an email, Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which operates under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, said the agency regularly reviews and updates emergency protocols, including evacuation plans, for each prison. “Due to the construction features of many of our prisons and camps, landscape fuel management modifications, dedicated fire brigades, and planning, many of our state prisons are well prepared for any wildfire risks, regardless of the area they are located,” she said. Thornton declined to share any specific details “for safety and security reasons.”

Asked if the prison system analyzed wildfire risk for institutions, Thornton said the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services “develops and maintains planning, preparedness, prevention, response and recovery strategies.” Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the office, said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was responsible for identifying risks to prisons. “Our general take,” he said, “is every place in California is wildfire country in 2022.”

Scott has been researching and modeling wildfire behavior since the 1980s, when the work was “an esoteric backwater of forestry that nobody cared about.” In 2004, Scott founded Pyrologix, a research firm based in Missoula, Montana, that assesses wildfire threats. After the deadliest and most destructive wildfire seasons on record in 2017 and 2018, Congress passed legislation calling for a nationwide assessment of the dangers posed by wildfires; the U.S. Forest Service hired Scott’s firm.

Scott and his team set out to develop a dataset that could be used as a tool for prioritizing the management of fuel before a blaze breaks out and the response after it does. To determine the most high-risk areas, they looked at both the probability that an area will burn in any given year and the potential for intense fires. They also sorted the data by housing density to identify areas where concentrated numbers of people might face fires.

As they combed through the data, Scott and his team noticed something: patches of very high-density housing in remote areas that were prone to burning. At first he suspected some kind of error in the model. As he went through each location, he was surprised instead to find carceral facilities. “Every time I look,” Scott said, “it’s a prison camp, a juvenile detention facility, a jail.”

The Forest Service fire data, which The Intercept used for its detention facility risk analysis, does not fully account for how fires are changing. Its assessments are based on historical records that cover 1992 to 2015 — not including, for instance, the Northern California blazes of October 2017 or the fires that have torn through the Pacific Northwest in recent years. The 2017 fires forced researchers like Scott to rethink changing wildfire behaviors. It soon became clear that the number of “fire weather days” — characterized by a combination of heat, strong winds, and low humidity — are proliferating from Oregon to Texas to Oklahoma.

“I do not see anywhere in the country where risk is going down,” Scott said. “It’s either flat or going up very, very fast.”

Higher-capacity detention facilities stand to see the most incarcerated people harmed by a single blaze. According to The Intercept’s analysis, there are 54 jails, prisons, and detention centers nationwide that hold more than 1,000 people that are above the 95th percentile for wildfire risk.

Sixteen of the nation’s 54 high-risk, high-capacity facilities are in the Golden State, including the Otay Mesa Detention Center, a privately run ICE detention center. Three of the prisons with large populations and extreme risk are in Oklahoma and eight are in Texas.

The Intercept’s analysis found that many of the most fire-prone facilities are concentrated in the American West. In both Idaho and Nevada, more than a quarter of detention facilities are at the highest level of peril.

Then there are unexpected areas of danger. Florida has more state-run facilities facing extreme wildfire risk than California and is home to the highest-risk facility in the nation with a capacity of over 1,000 people: the Everglades Correctional Institution. It’s not a matter of dryness — the state prison sits next to a tropical wetland — but rather nearby vegetation is so flammable that fires can move on top of the water. The facility was evacuated in 2008 because of wildfires; flames came dangerously close in 2017 and again last spring.

“I think we can assume that fires are going to continue regularly now and are now going to be chronic,” said Woods Ervin, who works with the coalition Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a statewide grassroots group that is pushing California to close prisons. “All signs point to that prisons don’t work, and so we need to figure something else out, because it’s just untenable.”

“Full-blown logistics nightmare”

A year before smoke from the Dixie Fire billowed into Susanville’s prisons, the LNU Lightning Complex fires, a massive blaze made up of smaller fires that merged, threatened the small California city of Vacaville. Some 15,000 residents had mandatory orders to leave their homes, but the prisons authority left incarcerated people inside two facilities in the evacuation zone. Activists organized a protest outside Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz’s home.

In the end, neither prison was evacuated during the Vacaville fire. Thornton, the state corrections agency spokesperson, told The Intercept there were no evacuation orders for the prisons themselves. As in Susanville, the agency refused to provide any details about what plans and procedures the detention facilities had in place for wildfires, let alone why they were not evacuated.

The sheer number of prisoners in California’s often overcrowded facilities creates a powerful disincentive for the state government to act. “The present state of ‘mass incarceration’ in the U.S. has resulted in a full-blown logistics nightmare in terms of emergency actions, making the decision to evacuate seem impossible,” Carlee Purdum, an expert on the impact of disasters on incarcerated people at Texas A&M University, wrote in a recent book.

Prison evacuations frequently go poorly. When Oregon evacuated prisons being approached by wildfires in 2020, incarcerated people reported being left without sufficient food, water, bathrooms, and Covid-19 protections. Some were unable to access medications they needed. Others reported being placed in facilities alongside — and facing retaliation from — members of their former gangs.

With the pace at which wildfires are getting dramatically larger and more severe, Newsom’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has taken flak from advocates for being unprepared for the deepening climate crisis in the state’s prisons, jails, and detention centers.

The Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project, an advocacy group known as TGI Justice Project, is demanding that California create guidelines for what should happen when prisons do evacuate. Newsom has yet to respond.

A recent report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, a state body that provides lawmakers with policy advice, said that it would take nearly $20 billion to resolve the full list of infrastructure problems prison officials have identified — a total that doesn’t even fully account for climate adaptation costs. (The agency’s report doesn’t mention wildfires, except to reference incarcerated people serving as firefighters.)

With prison populations declining, the Legislative Analyst’s Office also had another suggestion: Close some prisons. Organizers with Californians United for a Responsible Budget want more. The climate crisis has made the scope of infrastructure needs so unwieldy, they say, that repairs should be halted altogether. Instead, the organizers are pushing for California to close 10 prisons and release 50,000 people.

Two closures are already penciled in. In April 2021, the Newsom administration announced that it would close the California Correctional Center by June 2022. The town, whose economy depends on the facility, sued and won an injunction, freezing the process for now.

Vejar, the former head of the C-Yard’s inmate advisory council, who was released in November, said prison officials told him the backup generator that failed had needed repairs for more than 20 years. Closing the California Correctional Center, he said, was also overdue: “I think they’re doing what they should have been doing a long time ago and closing it down.” 


Alleen Brown is a New York-based reporter, focused on environmental justice issues. Prior to joining The Intercept, she worked as an education reporter in Minnesota. Her work has been published by The Nation, In These Times, YES! Magazine, and various Twin Cities publications.

This article was originally published on February 12, 2022. Republished with permission from The Intercept an award winning nonprofit news organization dedicated to holding the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism. 

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