Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
As disasters continue to increase both in frequency and in capacity for damage, the impacts of such events on incarcerated populations in the U.S. is becoming more apparent. The dependence of various states on the labor of prisoners to respond to major disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, oil spills, and wildfires has become a focal point of discussions centering on mass incarceration, the rights of prisoners, and the future of criminal justice reform. The institutions and structures which make incarcerated workers vulnerable to disasters within the prison setting, also make them vulnerable as workers. They face life altering repercussions if they refuse to work, even if they perceive the environmental work conditions stemming from a disaster as dangerous. Unlike governmental emergency response workers, if inmates are injured or die, they will not have the right to state compensation for their families. Their isolation makes it difficult to ensure there is proper oversight for their working conditions or an adequate provision of training.
The majority of studies and media attention on incarcerated workers in disasters has focused on those fighting major wildfires, with less attention to the use of prisoners drawn from correctional facilities to respond to other types of disasters. Additionally, as the role of incarcerated firefighters responding to wildfires garners much attention, the use of inmates to serve as all-hazard firefighters for day-to-day community emergency response has remained overlooked. This study expands the literature on the vulnerability of prisoners and disaster by examining the role of incarcerated workers and all-hazard inmate firefighters in response to Hurricane Irma in the state of Georgia.
Across the United States, fire and emergency response systems are facing numerous obstacles. Emergency and disaster response calls have dramatically increased over the past several decades, yet the number of volunteers has significantly declined. More than 70 percent of fire departments in the United States rely only on volunteers, especially in rural areas. State agencies and local governments in Georgia look to the Georgia Department of Corrections to provide between 220 and 280 inmates each year—trained and certified as firefighters—to respond to car accidents, structural fires, missing person reports, bomb incidents, hazardous materials incidents, military disasters, tornadoes, wildfires, and other major disasters, including the recent Hurricanes Irma and Michael.
Through qualitative interviews with former participants and emergency, corrections, and government officials, as well as analyses of policies, news media, and other documents, this study examined the role of inmate firefighters across emergency and disaster response in the state. Results found that obstacles facing local governments and fire departments are prompting further incorporation of inmates into emergency services, including housing inmate teams full-time in civilian fire stations and adding inmates to the state’s official Georgia Search and Rescue (GSAR) teams. These findings reflect the imperiled state of emergency services in many communities and have implications for the future of emergency and disaster response, as inmates are increasingly looked to as a captive source of labor in the United States that can be put to work throughout the life cycle of disasters, despite being a vulnerable population.
Smith, Jordan Carlee, "Incarcerated Workers and Inmate All-Hazard Firefighters in Emergency Response and Disasters: A Captive Labor Force" (2019). LSU Doctoral Dissertations. 5024.
Available for download on Friday, June 26, 2026