My cousin Michael Allen, now deceased, was arrested for the first time in September 1995 for an attempted carjacking. The attempt, which failed when his victim wrested away his gun and shot him in the neck, was a part of a week of robberies in which Michael was, it now appears, crystallizing a gang affiliation. He had no prior record, no history of violent actions. He received a sentence of 12 years and eight months, and was transferred to adult prison at 17. His time in prison was hard, and ultimately led to his demise insofar as he was shot and killed three years after his 2006 release by a lover he had met there.
Yet the time in prison brought him one beautiful, life-transforming opportunity: the chance to serve on an inmate fire crew.
Michael got assigned to fire camp on May 19, 2003, his first day outside of prison or a prison transport vehicle in almost eight years. The training involved hiking in and out of canyons, learning how to cut “firelines,” the breaks in fuel sources intended to stop a greedy fire in its tracks. He learned how to use shovels and rakes for this work, and crew roles such as captain, swamper and dragspoon. He recorded those days as here, his first one:
Day 1 — I felt real dizzy. I’ve always thought I would be acutely aware of everything on that first day. I felt myself panic. For an instant I even wanted to run back inside. The free air had me coughing a lot. Going up the mountain I saw the sky was noticeably different from in prison. Even though it has been the same sky since the beginning of time. I really started to take a lot in going down the mountain. Yellow small flowers lined the trail. There were purple ones as well.
In October 2003, Michael fought what was, at the time, the largest wildfire in California history. The California Fire Siege burned some 750,000 acres. At one point, 80,000 acres incinerated in 10 hours. More than two acres per second went up, in a raging roar like that of a fleet of freight trains.
The work was intense. Michael wrote: Our captain has this example of what it is to fight fire. He says that if you haven’t been at a fire where you are constantly tearing up, breathing hard, and drinking your own snot, then you haven’t fought a fire. Forgive me for what may appear disgusting but for every firefighter these aspects are as real as death.
The pay was outrageous, $1 a day at the time. But that was not why Michael did it.
Michael fought fires because the work gave him the chance to be the man he had always known he could be. Smart, courageous and dedicated, he loved the firefighting and was immensely proud of it. He also made his best progress at correspondence college courses while simultaneously working hard in the often terrifying outdoors.
Within a penal system that in its other features was more likely to degrade and reduce human development, Michael accidentally fell into a program that, but for the exploitative pay, is an excellent example of a response to wrongdoing that seeks to make the victim whole, seeks to make the community whole and seeks to help the wrongdoer prepare for positive relations with the broader society.
Germany and the Netherlands use a “principle of association” to structure their system of sanctions. This means they recognize that wrongdoers succeed better when they reenter society, after the completion of their sanction, if they have had the chance to develop and build positive social relations. The firefighting program is, in effect, built on such a principle of association. Offenders get the chance to leave the prison and, to some extent, to interact with the free world. They build skills and have the opportunity to take pride in their work. Success depends on teamwork.
We hoped that, when Michael was released in 2006, he would be able to live with members of our extended family in Riverside County in California and continue to participate on a fire crew. But the parole rules at the time required that he return to the county of his crime, urban Los Angeles. There, he wasn’t able to build on the growth that fighting fires brought him.
The U.S. criminal-justice system uses the principle of association mainly by accident, as when, because of need, the state looks to incarcerated people as a potential labor force. But we should recognize the value in programs of this kind, restructure them to avoid exploitation and treat them as anchors for a new approach to criminal justice. We shouldn’t need a disaster to guide us toward this better way.