Conservation Camps: Carceral Labor in California



Interspersed within a most varied collection of landscapes in California, stands a vast and complex archipelago of correctional institutions. Besides 37 medium and high security walled-prisons it counts 43 Conservation Camps that are settlements for human treatment characterized by a more permissive incarcerated life. Here 4,000 inmates are employed as fire fighters dealing with eco-disaster emergencies such as fires, floods, earthquakes and tornados, and as manual laborers at the service of local public agencies. Working activities in the open air are regarded as the principal treatment for rehabilitating the convicts, who are approaching the end of their sentence and are assigned to the camps on a volunteer basis after a period in a Training Center and a psycho-physical exam that proved them eligible to work and capable of responsible behavior.

I visited the camps between August and September 2014, during a three-week ‘Grand Tour.’ One of the officers I encountered referred to the prisoners as the “chronically unemployed,” labeling a common belief that conceives criminality as an outcome of the lack of working activities. Consequently, rehab is considered essential to teach the moral values of work to these supposedly deviant citizens. The camps are almost unconditionally praised by adverse political parties for a number of factors: public money saving, safeguarding of the natural environment, more productive and socially engrained inmate communities, as well as an allegedly more humane and healthy environment than traditional prisons. Such consensus sets them apart from the sharply contrasting views about the condition of labor in American prisons, which fluctuates between unconditioned support and harsh critique. Probably because of that, but far from considering the camps an idyllic form of incarceration, sociologist Philip Goodman finds in the Conservation Camps Program an invaluable place for observing the ambiguities and contradictions of prison labor and its blurring of exploitation and rehabilitation (Hero and Inmate: Work, Prisons, and Punishment in California’s Fire Camps, 2012). At the same time, their friendly and bucolic character destabilizes the certainties with which architecture exerts its disciplinary power in prison environments. Nonetheless, there is much more design intentionality than the eye could plainly see, which provides an answer to the question I was being consistently asked during my tour: why would an architect be interested in studying the Conservation Camps, instead of focusing on the carefully designed, “cutting edge” incarceration typologies that California offers? The camps are managed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), in collaboration with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and, more recently, the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Whereas the duty of supervision, correction and rehabilitation is delegated to CDCR personnel, the Forestry Department’s primary aim is extracting the maximum productivity and efficiency from the inmates’ work independently from their criminal status. The inmates are organized in crews of twelve to seventeen people, and headed by a fire captain, thus reproducing the hierarchical structure and social tactics proper of the military organization of fire brigades.

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The widespread distribution of the 43 conservation camps overlapped to the CAL FIRE’s Direct Protection Area (DPA) / Drawing by Sabrina Puddu

The collective organization of the inmates does not only apply to their working activities, but permeates all domains of their life in the camp: crews eat at the same time, are assigned to the same transport vehicle, and share the same dormitory. The crew thus becomes the basic unit of the routine and social organization of the camp, which is superimposed over the typical social structure of prisons, and its usual self-organization into racialized groups. To a certain extent, inmates are not regarded as abstract subjects, who would be part of an indefinite mass of prisoners, and whose spatial counter figure is the egalitarian series of cells of canonical prisons. At the same time, the relationships between officers and inmates are not ruled by a hyper-technological apparatus of surveillance that would erase any superfluous contact between the two categories. Conversely, the personnel, officers and fire captains live in a constant physical contact with the inmates, to the point of often sharing food with them. Inmates are granted a greater freedom of movement, being allowed to circulate indoor and outdoor in accordance to the camp’s routine and regulations, and within a territory that is not marked by a wall or a fence. Nevertheless, despite all these striking differences from walled-prisons and the apparent estrangement of the camps from the 1980s formation of the “Prison Industrial Complex” described by Mike Davis (“Hell Factories in the Field” 1995), the conservation camps are an essential complementary part of the Californian archipelago of incarceration, and were fully absorbed as one of its levels of punishment.

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A crew of inmates fire-fighters preparing for an emergency call. / Photograph by Francesco Zuddas & Sabrina Puddu (2014)

Within the Californian landscape the camps are territorial and ecological garrisons of national power, whose origins can be located in the legacy of the New Deal and its ideology of ruralization and de-urbanization. Such legacy consisted of a number of camps for the civilian young male unemployed population (the Civilian Conservation Corp Program), which were built to provide forestry maintenance while tackling the severe job crisis of the 1930s. Responding to the emergence and strengthening of an environmental awareness in rural California and the related need for more even safeguarding of nature reserves, the geography of the camps has been updated overtime by the Department of Forestry and made fit with new tendencies in prison planning during the second half of the 20th century. In the essay “When the ‘Jungle’ Met the Forest” (2009), historian Volker Jansenn observes that the Conservation Camps Program in the 1940s-1960s was the first correctional experiment in California to be massively settled in remote areas of the state, thus contributing to remove the prison from being an exclusive domain of the city and preceding the now usual tendency to build correctional institutes in peripheral areas. Camps, he argues, have taken part in the attempt of decreasing the gap between the rural white and conservative realm (the “forest”), and its supposedly vicious, immoral, eco-unfriendly, multiracial urban counterpart (the urban “jungle”), acting as the “penal welfare state’s liberal reform treatment for the ghetto.”

The geographical scale of the Conservation Camps Program is essential to understand the phenomenon in relation to the formation of the rural condition and environmental awareness of modern California, and to the development of the nation’s correctional geography. Yet, location strategies are not enough to grasp the phenomenon in its more latent intentions. Those become apparent only when the internal rationale of the single camp is also considered. A taxonomic approach towards the camps and their main development stages between the 1940s and today unveils such rationale. It also challenges the assumption shared by most scholars (and by the common opinion of CDCR personnel) that camps are simple, unplanned settlements displaying a non-rational spatial arrangement. Whereas the buildings look like tame cottages scattered in the landscape, a closer comparative analysis of the forty-two camp layouts reveals them as elements of a tactically organized ground. Once stripped off of any purely “architectural” quality or embellishment — not last the abdication of the perimeter wall, the sine qua non condition of a prison — the camp’s rationale lies completely in its planimetric layout. As escape prevention is no longer considered as the main concern, spatial design is almost entirely oriented towards the regulation of the life and the relations of the community: inmates, officers and fire captains. The purpose is to elevate the ethics of the community itself while increasing their immediate and future productivity.

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Surveillance in juvenile dormitories. / Photograph by Francesco Zuddas & Sabrina Puddu (2014)

The camp is the spatial apparatus that registers and mediates these relationships. This is done through an abdication of the third-dimension to focus almost exclusively on the tactical arrangement of the ground. In fact, the camp operates through the preparation, organization and engraving of the ground with the purpose to spatialize routes, routines, functions and the relative position of social groups. The character of the Conservation Camps thus relies on the ambiguity between the reassuring domestic appearance that is perceived from the three-dimensional image of the buildings and the tacit societal regulation registered by the two-dimensional layout: the military quintessence of the camp.

Taxonomy reveals three main organizational diagrams (see page 44): these can be labeled as linear, centripetal and double-cluster, and correspond to three different phases in the penal history of California. Closer reading reveals that each period is more or less associated with experiments on the typology of dormitories, which were modified as the number of inmates-per-camp increased overtime.

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Photograph by Francesco Zuddas & Sabrina Puddu (2014)

In the 1940s, some (still approximate) experiments of camp organization aimed to exploit prisoners’ labor in order to fill the void left by the termination of the New Deal civil camps program. The earliest camps either occupied existing structures inherited by the civilian program or were contained in a large single building. A more advanced layout organized the buildings along a main corridor. Although less reasonable as a diagram of control, such linear organization allowed for easy adaptation to different topographic conditions, thus being a favorite solution for this start-up stage in the camps’ history.

The centripetal camps were the product of a reformative era guided by Governor Pat Brown, who significantly boosted the program in the 1960s. Rehabilitation was regarded at this time as socio-medical treatment and inmates were considered sick individuals that had to be taken care by a modern welfare state. For that purpose, the camp personnel were trained to provide educational programs and psychological support to the inmates. Open-air work was part of this process of psychophysical treatment aimed at reforming the life trajectory of the prisoners. In addition, the exploitation of inmate labor for useful public jobs and the conservation of natural resources constituted the other virtuous side of the program. The program thus became the flag of a correctional rehabilitative utopia and of an emerging environmental sensibility. Both the camps and the training administrative centers built in this period were purposely planned to give an illusory sense of openness and freedom while being more controlled and regulated, thus paving the way to the emergence of the centripetal settlement type. Buildings were organized around a central courtyard, with the working and “residential” areas facing one another, the former being managed by CAL Fire and the latter by CDCR. The dorms were now internally subdivided into large rooms, each meant to host one of five working crews. The centripetal layout made the adaptation to topography less practical and required more detailed design of the ground, while being more efficient for supervision purposes.

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A comparative taxonomic approach reveals the existence of a rational spatial arrangement in the plan scheme of the conservation camps / © Google access October 2014.

After a stage of decline following the 1960s boom, the program had to confront with a new punitive regime that started changing heavily the Californian incarceration system in the 1980s. Whereas the nature of the camps as very permissive institutes could have justified their abolition, against any odds the program was reinvigorated under new simplified slogans and objectives — “camps could save money to the Californian taxpayers since the majority of the nation’s fire brigades would be composed of inmates,” “prisoners could redeem themselves through work” — regardless of any demonstrable benefit work has on criminals. New camps were opened marking an evident shift in layout. The camp was now more clearly partitioned between the two institutions, which resulted in a composition of two separate clusters: the residential area followed a centripetal organization, whereas two rows of barns faced a longitudinal parking space in the working area. A higher number of inmates than in the past were housed in the camp, either in a two-story L-shaped dormitory or in smaller two-crew cottages. While no difference may be noticed in the three-dimensional appearance of the buildings, the main change signaled by the new layout was the definitive emancipation of the work component. The camp thus became a far more efficient productive apparatus at the service of the Forestry Department. Rehabilitation as a complex psychophysical process (as pursued in the 1960s and 1970s) faded to the advantage of working activities that were left as the only form of treatment: any shift in the inmates’ behavior could only happen if they accepted to change on their own initiative. From a welfare era where the state was responsible for the socio-medical treatment of the criminals, camps have been driven into the post-welfare neoliberal age that still persists today. In consequence, inmates started being considered individually responsible for their own recovery.

Despite no statistical studies have been released to prove that the camp regime is more effective in changing the minds of criminals, and despite the successive adjustments the program went through time, conservation camps are still considered a worthwhile experiment and survive as rural eco-rehabs serving multiple purposes for the state of California. The idea of criminals being instilled a work ethic in a rural bucolic environment is such a widely accepted and sensitive formula that it can hardly be challenged. Today the camps play an important role in the propaganda of the Department of Correction: they represent a win-win scenario for national institutions and plea is inevitable for these inmates-fire-fighters — a curious mediatic oxymoron combining heroism, military discipline, work ethic and the immoral condition of criminality. Beyond this apparent ideal form of incarceration there remains a complex and contradictory phenomenon that challenges, from the periphery of the correctional system, the opportunity to rehabilitate criminals through labor as well as the simultaneous amplification of scope and retreat of architecture in the ever-dubious project of carceral environments.