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Eric Thayer for Reuters, from Thomas Fuller and Lance Booth, “California Hasn’t Seen Fires Like This: Pictures of a State in Flames.” The New York Times. November 10, 2018.    

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“Wildfires
have been raging ferociously in California this year. According to
meteorologist Craig Clements at San Jose University, wildfires have also
been much larger than usual. Fire seasons typically run from May to
November in northern California, Napa Valley and Sonoma counties. In the
summer, 100-degree temperatures dry out the grass, and droughts add to
the problem.

In 2017, fires in California were the deadliest since
the beginning of record keeping, with 100,000 people forced to evacuate
and around 75,000 displaced when their homes and businesses were
destroyed. It took more than 11,000 firefighters to battle those blazes.

Officially,
at least 35 to 40 percent of Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting force,
are prison inmate crews, and the number may be even higher. ‘‘Any fire
you go on statewide, whether it be small or large, the inmate hand crews
make up anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total fire personnel,’’
says Lt. Keith Radey, a commander in charge of one of the inmate fire
camps.

About 4,000 inmates each week
fight wildfires alongside civilian firefighters. That number includes
approximately 250 women. There are 43 inmate firefighting camps. The
three camps for women were opened in 1983.

In the fires, women
wear either yellow or orange fire-retardant suits, helmets and
handkerchiefs to cover their mouths and necks. Each one carries 50 to 60
pounds of gear and equipment in her backpack, and some also carry
chainsaws. Crews of 14 people each fight on the front lines.

Firefighting
is dangerous, grinding work requiring endurance and includes injuries
and some deaths. Prison crews in California firefighting bring to mind
chain gangs without the chains.

Prison labor and fires

In 1946, the Conservation Camp Program began using
prison labor to fight deadly fires, under the joint supervision of the
Division of Forestry and the Department of Correction, and later under
the supervision of the California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Nowadays, California’s institutionalized
inmates make license plates, prison uniforms, office furniture for state
employees and anything else the prison may need. They usually earn
between 8 cents and 95 cents per hour.

But inmates in the forestry
program are paid more to fight fires. They can make up to $2.56 a day
in camp, plus $1 an hour when fighting fires, though during training
they may be paid nothing at all.

In comparison, full-time civilian firefighter salaries start around $40,000 yearly or $17 per hour minimum.

In
2014, when California courts took up the issue of overcrowded prisons,
the state attorney general’s office argued against shrinking the number
of inmates because prisoners were needed to fight fires. In 2015, Gov.
Jerry Brown agreed. Other states use prisoner firefighters, but not
nearly on the scale that California does.

Most California inmates
volunteer to fight fires. They must pass a fitness test, and then they
receive as little as three weeks’ training, compared to a three-year
apprenticeship for full-time civilian firefighters.

Prisoners
fighting fires are serving terms for nonviolent, low-level crimes, such
as drug or alcohol-related offenses. Volunteers have to earn the right
to be chosen for “rehabilitation work.” High risks are involved, but
they earn more money than in other prison jobs — in a less violent
atmosphere, in more physical space than a prison cell offers. The risks
are weighed against the same amount of time served inside a correctional
facility.

At-risk women prisoners
Women
prisoners interviewed have given a range of feelings about being in the
forestry program. At firefighters’ camp, they have woodworking areas,
softball fields and libraries. They enjoy being outdoors and having
barbecues with family visits. Children see their parents in a camp
environment rather than inside a restricted prison.

And women may
get to see their children on the outside sooner because their sentences
are reduced due to firefighting credit. For every day they are in a
camp, their sentence is reduced by one day. Some women provide this
labor for years. They resent the hardship and intense physical labor,
but say it is worth the risk.

Since women in the firefighting
camps are available 24 hours a day for work, they are considered a
“resource” for the state. California’s firefighting program saves
taxpayers close to $100 million each year, according to the CDCR. The
cost for housing each inmate in a prison facility is $76,000 a year, as
opposed to using them to fight blazes.

– Dolores Cox, “In battle for freedom, women inmates fight blazes In battle for freedom, women inmates fight blazes.” Workers World. July 29, 2018

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“What launched your interest in telling this story? When you were writing your first book “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol,” were there elements that sparked your interest in digging deeper into the prison and jail system of the U.S., and Los Angeles specifically?

Migra! is a story about race and policing in the United States, specifically the the rise of the U.S. Border Patrol in the U.S.-Mexican border region and the border patrol’s nearly exclusive focus on policing unauthorized immigration from Mexico. After completing it, I wanted to examine another dimension of race and law enforcement. Living in Los Angeles, I knew that Los Angeles operates the largest jail system in the United States. In fact, some researchers say no city on Earth jails more people than Los Angeles. Therefore, Los Angeles, the City of Angels, is, in fact, the City of Inmates, the punitive capital of the world. But we know very little about the making and meaning of incarceration in Los Angeles. It is a history that has never been told. So, I began to research how Los Angeles, my hometown, built one of the largest systems of human caging that the world has ever known.

What I found in the archives is that since the very first days of U.S. rule in Los Angeles — the Tongva Basin — incarceration has persistently operated as a means of purging, removing, caging, containing, erasing, disappearing and otherwise eliminating indigenous communities and racially targeted populations. I tell this tale with six stories that demonstrate how incarceration was used to first clear Tongva and other indigenous populations from the region and then cage up a variety of racially marginalized populations, ranging from the itinerant white males disparaged as  “tramps and “hobos” to Chinese immigrants, African Americans and Mexican Immigrants.

You reveal that mass incarceration is in fact mass elimination of these non-conforming groups. Why is Los Angeles’ particular history so illustrative of this?

Los Angeles opens a window to see untold histories of incarceration, namely those that can best be told from the perspective of the American West. And what the American West teaches us about the rise of incarceration in the United States is that conquest matters. In particular, the 19th-century efforts to expand the United States across the North American continent and to build white settler communities on the nation’s western frontier are deeply imprinted in the nation’s police and incarceration practices. By focusing on the western town that built the nation’s largest jail system, City of Inmates unlocks how the dynamics of conquest shaped, and continue to shape, the priorities and tactics of human caging in the United States.

History is rife with the stories of powerful nations engaging in conquest and subjugation of the conquered. Why is elimination so endemic to the U.S.?

In the United States, settler occupation of native lands is not over. Therefore, the need to eliminate Indigenous sovereignties and define belonging within the settler community endures. Indeed, conquest is a persistent dynamic in our social relations and institutional practices, including incarceration.

At every telling of conquest, there is also a story of rebellion. In fact, your book is the result of a painstaking effort to mine what you call a “rebel archive” because of a lack of official documentation from Los Angeles government archives. As a historian, was this infuriating or energizing?

I was angry when I learned that city authorities have destroyed almost all of the LAPD’s historical records. The destruction of LAPD records undermines our ability to research and understand one of the largest and most significant public institutions in Los Angeles, one of the largest cities in the world. But that anger fueled my determination to turn over every stone and open every archival window to somehow, find the story. So I spent years searching the city, nation, and indeed, the world for records that document the history of incarceration in Los Angeles. What I learned was that the people who fought the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles created and saved reams of records. I’ve used their deeds and words to chronicle the rise of incarceration in L.A.”

– Jessica Wolf interviews Kelly Lytle Hernández, “How Los Angeles became the capital of incarceration.UCLA Newsroom, May 10, 2017.

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“California police investigating a violent white nationalist event worked with white supremacists in an effort to identify counter-protesters and sought the prosecution of activists with “anti-racist” beliefs, court documents show.

The records, which also showed officers expressing sympathy with white supremacists and trying to protect a neo-Nazi organizer’s identity, were included in a court briefing from three anti-fascist activists who were charged with felonies after protesting at a Sacramento rally. The defendants were urging a judge to dismiss their case and accused California police and prosecutors of a “cover-up and collusion with the fascists”.

Defense lawyers said the case at the state capital offers the latest example of US law enforcement appearing to align with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups while targeting anti-fascist activists and Donald Trump protesters after violent clashes.

“It is shocking and really angering to see the level of collusion and the amount to which the police covered up for the Nazis,” said Yvette Felarca, a Berkeley teacher and anti-fascist organizer charged with assault and rioting after participating in the June 2016 Sacramento rally, where she said she was stabbed and bludgeoned in the head. “The people who were victimized by the Nazis were then victimized by the police and the district attorneys.”

Steve Grippi, chief deputy district attorney prosecuting the case in Sacramento, vehemently denied the claims of bias in an email to the Guardian, alleging that anti-fascist stabbing victims have been uncooperative and noting that his office has filed charges against one member of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), the neo-Nazi group that organized the rally.

Some California highway patrol (CHP) investigation records, however, raise questions about the police’s investigative tactics and communication with the TWP.

Felarca’s attorneys obtained numerous examples of CHP officers working directly with the TWP, often treating the white nationalist group as victims and the anti-fascists as suspects.”

– Sam Levin, “California police worked with neo-Nazis to pursue ‘anti-racist’ activists, documents show.” The Guardian, Feb. 9, 2018.

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Scene on Los Angeles Ostrich Farm, Los Angeles, Cal. c. 1906-1916. Lincoln Heights area. Source.

“Sketchley’s enterprise attracted national attention. The New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune, and Scientific American all ran reports from awestruck correspondents who seemed to delight in describing the high-strung and ungainly birds.

“To those who are unfamiliar with the appearance of an ostrich, it may be described as resembling nothing more than a large gas pipe set on tall and muscular legs,” wrote a correspondent for the Tribune.

“An ostrich is apparently the most ill-tempered bird in existence. They never acquire a fondness for anyone,” wrote the New York Times. “They are always on the lookout to kick someone, and if the kick has the intended effect it is pretty sure to be fatal.”

Harvesting the birds’ economic value, then, was a delicate process.

The Rancho Los Feliz ostrich farm may have inspired Griffith G. Griffith to donate much of his real estate as public parkland.

“A curious fact about the bird is that it never kicks unless it can see its adversary,” explained the Tribune. “The ostrich men have utilized this peculiarity, and before plucking draw a long stocking down the neck of the birds, completely blindfolding him.”

The margin for error was thin: “One of the keepers overlooked a hole in the stocking recently and had a narrow escape,” the Tribune’s correspondent added.

Sketchley’s farm attracted interest from local investors, too. Beginning in 1886, nearby landowners built an Ostrich Farm Railway to transport curious sightseers back and forth from central Los Angeles. At one point, five trains a day steamed into the farm’s depot.

Financial difficulties soon forced Griffith and Sketchley to close their operation in 1889, but despite its short lifespan it left a lasting legacy. Local historian Mike Eberts suggests that it inspired Griffith to later donate much of his real estate to the city as public parkland. The Ostrich Farm Railway, meanwhile, became part of the first great electric railway linking Los Angeles to Santa Monica, and its winding route through the hilly terrain of what’s now Echo Park and Silver Lake became Sunset Boulevard.

The Rancho Los Feliz farm also spawned imitators across Southern California, aided by region’s climate and booming tourism trade. By 1910, Southern California boasted ten ostrich farms.”

– Nathan Masters, “Southern California’s First Amusement Parks? Ostrich Farms.“ September 20, 2012.

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