This summer, some 285 imprisoned Oregonians fought the worst wildfires the state has ever seen. These crews of inmate firefighters only made about $10 a day for their labor.
Now, a coalition of activist groups focused on police abolition is holding a fundraiser to further compensate the inmate firefighters for their life-risking work. The goal is to raise around $55,000—enough to put $200 into each person’s commissary account.
“Every year, during the wildfire season, a lot of people are outraged to hear that inmate firefighters aren’t fairly compensated for their labor,” said Evan Quarles of Lane County Mutual Aid, one of the groups in the coalition. “They’re putting their lives in danger because of climate change, to save the lives impacted by it.”
Quarles said the fundraiser started as an informal campaign on Twitter this summer, and led to the coalition “pestering the Oregon Department of Corrections for at least a month” to get the names of all the inmate firefighters. Volunteers with the coalition—which also includes Critical Resistance Portland, Care Not Cops PDX, Black & Pink PDX, and Siskiyou Abolition Project—then sent letters to each inmate firefighter, asking if they were interested in the fundraiser. The majority of the firefighters have already replied with interest, and the group continues to receive responses.
“Most of the people we are in contact with were extremely glad to hear people recognized the labor that they do… to save the lives of countless people," Quarles said. “They’re desperately in need of resources. A lot of their families are out of work because of COVID-19, or they don’t have anyone on the outside.”
Rory Elliott, an organizer with Critical Resistance Portland, said she read one letter in which an inmate described how people he met who were impacted by the fires treated the inmates "as people who saved their homes and not as people who are imprisoned.” But for the most part, Elliott said, the firefighters wrote about not receiving recognition from the larger public for their work.
“One the one hand, [the inmates] recognize they’re being exploited for their labor,” added Quarles. “But on the other hand, they have a sense of pride in what they do.”
The coalition’s fundraiser, which kicked off last week, will also include raffles with prizes provided by Oregon artists and musicians. The group is also seeking volunteers who will maintain letter correspondence with the inmate firefighters—those interested can email LaneMutualAid@gmail.com.
In addition to communicating about the fundraiser, Quarles said the letter-writing had evolved into a “labor-building project,” with inmates writing that they wish they could get time off their sentences for their firefighting work—a practice used in other states—or pardoned by Gov. Kate Brown to help lessen crowding in Oregon during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coalition plans to advocate for these demands in its future work.
Elliott said the inmates she corresponded with planned to use the commissary donations to buy healthier food than what is available in the cafeteria. One person said they planned to buy protein powder to stay in shape for the next firefighting season.
Others said they planned to use the donations to support others in Oregon’s prison system who can use the help.
This is a project of mutual aid,” Elliott said. “We know that by resourcing people outside… we’re also supporting the mutual aid work that happens inside prison.”
You can donate to the fundraiser here.