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Nate Manwarren had never flown to a fire before. And as the canary yellow helicopter circled a mountain blazing with wildfires, the 32-year-old firefighter worried, just for a second, that he might tumble through the open door and into the smoldering forest below.
Minutes later, the chopper touched down at the base of Wolf Knob, a stubby mountain 12 miles west of Asheville, North Carolina. It was the fall of 2016, and more than 30 wildfires were blazing through the region's broadleaf forests. Manwarren grabbed a battered chainsaw and hustled up the mountain, where he and his crew began putting in "line" (a shallow trench) to keep the fire from spreading. Sweating under his orange hard hat, chaps, and yellow Nomex coveralls, Manwarren sank his saw's teeth into brush. Flames licked the tree trunks around him.
When night fell, a helicopter ferried Manwarren to a nearby airport. A bus returned him to his cell at the Foothills Correctional Institution in Burke County, North Carolina.
The crew Manwarren rides with is one of 13 managed by the BRIDGE Program, a prison labor outfit run by the North Carolina Forest Service and the state's Department of Public Safety. BRIDGE stands for Building, Rehabilitating, Instructing, Developing, Growing, and Employing. About 70 men, all under 32, are enrolled in BRIDGE.
The pay is lousy: $1 a day.
Manwarren made more than that working in the prison laundry, his last gig before joining BRIDGE. But when we met in November at BRIDGE headquarters in Morganton, North Carolina, he told me cleaning clothes wasn't as satisfying. "I like running fire," he said as we settled into squeaky plastic chairs in a small, well-lit classroom.
Manwarren is not an effusive man. He's a professional, an expert too confident in his craft to gain much by boasting or bellyaching. When I asked him, he played down the job's difficulties, confessed only that it gets "pretty warm" on the line. But as we talked about helicopters and chainsaws and snags "showering sparks… like a Roman Candle," Manwarren's deep, flat voice began to crackle with enthusiasm.
Like many of his crewmates, Manwarren is a country boy. He moved with his mother from upstate New York to Wilkes County, North Carolina, in the Appalachian foothills, when he was 12. Curious from the jump, Manwarren told me that he liked to read Louis L'Amour novels and tramp through the forest near his home, a wistful smile crossing his face like a cloud. But Manwarren grew up. He worked construction. He tended bar. In 2013, he walked into a Cracker Barrel in Boone and robbed the cashier at gunpoint. Manwarren was convicted the following year of robbery with a dangerous weapon and sentenced to up to seven years in state prison, according to Department of Public Safety records. He spent three years inside the prison fence before joining BRIDGE.
He remembers the first time he went out with a firefighting crew. "We were clearing forest service roads," Manwarren, now a broad-shouldered man with a face weathered by sun and work, recalled. "I just remember looking around on the side of the mountain, and just being like, I'm out in the woods again."
Boosters of the BRIDGE Program say sending people in prison into the woods to fight wildfires builds skills that help these men forge meaningful lives upon release. It trains them to be good workers, they say; it builds character. Critics of prison labor argue that paying workers so little for their labor is exploitative, even a form of slavery. What do crewmen think about the program? "There's good and bad parts," Manwarren said, pausing to chew it over. "The worst part is when we don't have to go out."
Outside might be better than inside, but the relative joys of the fire line are paid for in sweat. During the 2016 fire season, BRIDGE crewman Orlando Bruner worked consecutive 10- to 12-hour days containing spot fires. "I was tired," the 27-year-old firefighter recalled, laughing at the memory. "I'd come back every night and just take a shower and go to bed, and then come back again the next morning." Bruner likes his work, though. "I come out with a good attitude everyday and do what I've got to do."
"I don't see why it has to be slave labor… Just pay them minimum wage."
The BRIDGE Program is as old as Manwarren. In 1985, the year he was born, a man in Burke County heaped garbage into a pile, and lit it on fire. Embers from the smoldering trash ignited a wildfire that burned nearly 5,000 acres of forest in western North Carolina. When the smoke cleared, state officials decided they needed to beef up their wildfire fighting force. The BRIDGE Program launched the following year. It now employs 20 full-time staff, including civilian crew leaders and a carpentry instructor, and enrolls firefighters from four prisons in the region.
No one incarcerated in North Carolina is forced to fight wildfires, and not just anyone is allowed to. A BRIDGE staff member screens potential recruits to make sure they're healthy, eligible for "off-unit" work, haven't been convicted of certain crimes (including arson), and haven't tried to escape from prison within the last five years. Crewmen usually stick around until they're released, which tends to be about a year. Some, including a handful who have tried to escape, are booted before then.
"If we obviously cannot benefit somebody, and they are totally negative about what we do, we are not going to put them through [the program]," Travis Ruff, the BRIDGE Program's Camp Director, told me. "They can go back and collect dust."
More likely, they'll work. Over 80 percent of inmates in North Carolina do some kind of labor, mostly within the prison fence. They stamp license plates, mop floors, and in some cases make furniture and other goods for Corrections Enterprises, a for-profit company—all for between $0.40 and $3 a day. Like incarcerated workers across the country, they're not protected by minimum wage laws, and cannot form unions. Given how miserable prison work usually is, the chance to fight wildfires gives inmates the "opportunity of a lifetime," Ruff told me. There's no comprehensive data on what BRIDGE crewmen do when they get out. But Ruff says the recidivism rate for BRIDGE graduates is 7.3 percent, compared to 38 percent for the state's general prison population. In his view, the men ought to be grateful.
"Thanks for all you do!! You all are truly a blessing. May God Bless you and your families!" a Murphy, North Carolina resident posted on the program's Facebook page last November. It expresses what BRIDGE officials say is widespread support for the program in the area. "Our track record is such that we're expected to show up," Ruff said, switching from grimace to grin. Some folks in Burke County like BRIDGE so much they'd have crewmen mow their yards if they could, Ruff added, crediting BRIDGE crew leaders with the program's popularity. "How many people do you know would load up a bunch of inmates in their car and go out here and trust them?"
North Carolina isn't the only state that outsources the crucial task of controlling wildfires to people it incarcerates. Western states have fielded inmate firefighting crews for decades, and several other states in the South, including Virginia, West Virginia, and Georgia, use inmates to put out brush fires, protect buildings, and respond to medical emergencies. The Georgia program, which began in 1963, is the one of the oldest in the country. And it's massive: more than 220 inmates, including members of an all-female brigade, fight fires in 51 counties and cities.
But the best case study is California. The state has used incarcerated people to fight wildfires since 1946. Incarcerated people, including hundreds of women, now make up between 35 and 40 percent of its wildfire fighting force. While wages vary, firefighters are paid up to $2.56 a day in a fire camp, and can earn $1 an hour while out battling blazes. Their low-cost labor saves California taxpayers around $100 million a year.
But the savings can come at a high price. In July, 2017, Frank Anaya, a 22-year-old firefighter and inmate in San Diego, died after slashing his femoral artery on a chainsaw blade. Anaya's was the second of two inmate firefighter deaths in California in 2017—a year when the only California firefighters to die were prisoners, according to CalFire, the state's firefighting agency.
80 percent of inmates in North Carolina do some kind of labor, mostly within the prison fence. They stamp license plates, mop floors, and in some cases make furniture and other goods for Corrections Enterprises, a for-profit company—all for between $0.40 and $3 a day.
Opponents of California's prison fire program say asking incarcerated people to do such dangerous work for so little money is tantamount to slavery.
While the BRIDGE Program hasn't attracted the same controversy, prison labor schemes have a long and contentious history in North Carolina. The state locks up over 37,000 inmates in 55 state prisons. Unless they're enrolled in a full-time education or rehabilitation program, every "able-bodied" inmate is expected to work, says Carlton Joyner, the state's Deputy Director of Prisons. "We want you to work or participate in a full-time program." Doing so "eliminates idleness," and makes prisoners more manageable, he said.
Prison labor programs date back to the decades following the official end of chattel slavery. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery "except as punishment for crime," and during Reconstruction, Southern states used this constitutional carve-out to force prisoners, the vast majority of them Black men, to labor for the state and private companies in a practice known as "convict leasing." In North Carolina, anti-vagrancy laws ensured that Black men just released from bondage swiftly returned to labor camps, where they picked cotton, laid railroad track, and built their own prison houses.
Not much has changed, critics say. "The new slavery is no different from the old slavery," said Cynthia Parrish, an organizer with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prisoner-led committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWOC). IWOC works with incarcerated people to organize for better pay and working conditions in prison. Parrish, who spent five years in state prison, says the system is doubly oppressive: refusing to pay inmates fair wages for their work is exploitative, and leaves incarcerated people with no money to rebuild their lives upon release.
In response to these criticisms, Joyner referred me to a state law that caps prison "incentive wages" at $3 a day, implying that increasing inmate pay would require changing the law. Incarcerated people have long demanded just that. North Carolina prisoners participated in a 2010 work stoppage and tens of thousands of incarcerated people across the country organized the largest prison strike in U.S. history in 2016 to protest "slave conditions." In January, inmates in Florida prisons, where incarcerated workers are not paid, launched a mass strike demanding the end of unpaid work.
Firefighting has largely been left out of these disputes. When I described the program to Parrish and Joe Stapleton, another IWOC organizer in North Carolina, both said they could see why inmates might find firefighting rewarding. "I am in support of any opportunity inmates have to go outside and do meaningful work that makes them feel… like they have a purpose," Stapleton told me, speaking on behalf of IWOC.
"I don't see why it has to be slave labor, though," he said. "Just pay them minimum wage."
It's a beautiful drive to BRIDGE headquarters, a cluster of low-slung brick-and-vinyl buildings arrayed around an old prison camp just outside Morganton. Once a booming factory town, Morganton has seen better decades. Its downtown, dominated by a white-columned courthouse, is charming enough. But cross I-40 going south, drive along Mount Home Church Road past Kountry Market, and you'll find cratered farmhouses and dented Chevy Cavaliers, modest vinyl homes and lots strewn with busted playsets.
I see a military-style helicopter perched on a 40-foot tower and slow down. It's an overcast morning, and the rust-colored slopes of southern Appalachia are striking against the slate sky. It's also fire season. But as I pull into the driveway, several men in yellow coveralls are chatting casually near an open fence. No one's fighting fires today.
I picked a good month for fires, but a bad year for them, Ruff tells me as we sit down in a cluttered office decorated with Forest Service memorabilia. Ruff is a middle-aged white man with a mountain drawl and the chipper self-assurance of a scout leader. He's worked for BRIDGE since 1991. He looks the part in khaki and cargo pants, and he knows his stuff. This November has been unusually wet, he says; they've been getting fewer calls. During a typical fire season, crewmen are often called to fires as soon as they arrive at headquarters. If they're not fighting fires, they're usually out clearing trails, running prescribed burns, and tooling signs for the state Forest Service. But on days like today, when the men have no work to do, they train.
We walk up a hill toward a forest green fire engine parked outside a carpentry shop. Five crewmen, including Orlando Bruner, the only Black man in the yard, huddle under a tree, taking orders from a crew leader. The men wear heavy boots, thick gloves, fire-retardant Nomex, sunglasses, backpacks stuffed with water, food, and fire shelters. A few, including Bruner, wear orange hard hats. This means they're helitack. The elite.
In prison, hierarchies often form around seniority. In an effort to break down prison pecking orders, Bruner and his crewmates train with different men every day. The men practice different skills, and train using different tools. Their training meets national firefighting standards, and the best crewmen, like Bruner, undergo training that certifies them to respond to wildfires on helicopters.
Bruner never thought he'd fight fires, and like Manwarren, he was a little scared the first time he flew to a blaze in a chopper. "I actually held on to one of the guys," Bruner recalls, convulsing with laughter. "He was just like, 'I'm your brother, man, you can hold onto me.'"
Now Bruner is one of the most valuable firefighters in the state, an elite helitack crewman with several fire seasons under his belt. On the fire line, less-experienced civilian firefighters look up to him. "I followed a lot of my life," he says. "It's good to lead."
If BRIDGE weren't training people like Bruner to contain wildfires, it's not clear the state would be able to fight them at all. The BRIDGE Program is North Carolina's largest dedicated wildland fire service. And up in the mountains, where putting in line by hand is often the only way to suppress a fire, the state relies on BRIDGE crews to keep blazes from swallowing large tracts of land. Other fire agencies in the state—local and volunteer fire departments, and the U.S. Forest Service—have fewer staff, and sometimes less training, than BRIDGE crewmen. In the Grandfather Ranger District, which includes 200,000 acres of federally managed forest in western North Carolina, the U.S. Forest Service employs only 12 full-time staff, including non-firefighters.
"We're a real busy district," Greg Phillips, Fire Management Director for the U.S. Forest Service's Grandfather Ranger District, said. "There hasn't been a single prescribed burn we haven't had a BRIDGE crew on."
While temperatures haven't increased dramatically in the southeast, changing rainfall and land-use patterns have made the region's forests more prone to devastating conflagrations. The state saw one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent memory during the fall of 2016, when wildfires burned through more than 60,000 acres of forest in North Carolina, and thousands more in neighboring states. Fourteen people died, and 1,600 buildings were destroyed.
If temperatures start to spike in the South, as they have across the globe, North Carolina can expect these kinds of devastating wildfires to get even worse. "Today, there is quite a bit more to burn than there was, say, a century ago," Park Williams, associate professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told me. "It's created what could be tinder box-type conditions."
In densely populated areas, bigger fires mean more destruction and more death. An uptick in nasty blazes in North Carolina is also likely to put pressure on BRIDGE to expand. Even with 13 crews, Ruff says he lacks the men to keep homes from burning down each fire season.
"I see the value of expansion every time we go out," Ruff said. "Literally, if I had a hundred crews, I could keep every one of them busy."
If BRIDGE weren't training people like Bruner to contain wildfires, it's not clear the state would be able to fight them at all. The BRIDGE Program is North Carolina's largest dedicated wildland fire service.
Supporters say using inmates to beef up the state's fire service would be a winning proposition for taxpayers. While wages for professional wildland firefighters have steadily risen over the last three decades, the daily pay for a BRIDGE crewman hasn't changed since 1987. The program has saved North Carolina taxpayers $25 million over the last 30 years, according to the North Carolina Forest Service. But expanding the program could put more inmates in danger. While no inmate has died fighting fires in North Carolina, and crewmen say crew leaders keep them out of dicey situations, fighting fires is inherently risky. Wildland firefighters are also exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide and other pollutants, which can contribute to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other health problems later in life.
Manwarren isn't ignorant of the risks. But he says fighting fire has helped him find meaning and purpose in a system that usually denies him both. "You realize, being out here, that there's more than just prison," he says, speaking, it seems, more to himself than to me. "And it helps you remember, well, I've only got so much time left, this won't last forever."
Manwarren hopes to work on a professional firefighting crew once he's released in late 2018. It's not impossible: one former BRIDGE crewman is now an assistant ranger with the North Carolina Forest Service. But landing a firefighting job can be frustratingly difficult for people in Manwarren's position. Background checks can bar former inmates from local fire departments, and fire crews out west often refuse to hire people who've done time, even if they have fire training, according to one of the few scholars studying inmate fire programs in the United States, Lindsey Feldman, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Arizona.
Even if he never fights fires again, Manwarren says working with BRIDGE has been one the most important experiences of his life. It's taught him how to trust people, and reminded him what it feels like to be trusted. I wonder if it's also helped him salvage a sense of self-worth from a prison system built on its erasure.
He's not alone in feeling this way. "BRIDGE is the best experience of my life," Bruner tells me, saying he'd floundered before the state locked him up. "I finally found something I'm actually good at…. I actually found myself on BRIDGE."
"Do you think we coached them?" Ruff asks me later, after overhearing Bruner talk up the benefits of BRIDGE. I'm not sure. BRIDGE is designed to mold men into good laborers, to teach obedience and hard work. It's not surprising that crewmen adopt the program's values as their own. And yet, crewmen clearly derive a sense of purpose from fighting fires, even if it wrings sweat from their bodies without putting much money in their pockets.
Like all prison work, inmate firefighting programs confine and surveil their wards. But they also clear away some of the suspicion that governs prison life. The state hands prisoners chainsaws, packs them in an engine or helicopter, and asks them to keep people's homes from burning down. Out on the line, blinking through smoke to render an essential public service, Manwarren tells me he and his fellow firefighters don't feel like inmates, "just guys that are helping to do the job."
"Out here, you feel like a person again."
I ask Manwarren what it's like to spend his days as a person and his nights as a prisoner. He's silent for a long time. "It is kind of two different worlds, really," he says slowly and deliberately, eyes pinned to the wall. "It can be kind of frustrating… when you go back, you just feel kind of part of the prison system again."
Outside Ruff's office, a shallow trophy case displays contraband crew leaders have taken from inmates over the years. It's mostly what you might expect: cigarette lighters, cans of Copenhagen, condoms. But in there too are crumpled notes and faded photographs, artifacts of another life stolen and stuck behind glass. It's a reminder that, however crewmen might feel on the fire line, they're still not free.