Forest labor camps were the flagship of the department’s new approach.
Blending civil defense with public works, the camps combined the familiar routines of road gang labor with the political appeal of military service.
The need for civil defense and public works, prison officials thought, created opportunities for convicts to emerge from the shadow of prison walls and transcend rather than reaffirm inequalities of class and race.
Grateful for the “heroic deeds” of the sleep-deprived, soaked, and starving “men who put their life on the line for others,” Mrs. Quick asked the governor in a letter to reduce their sentences.
She showed no interest in the men’s criminal record—it was their race that caused Mrs.
Twenty-eight years of waging a war on drugs and street crime, legislating mandatory minimum sentences, and building maximum security prisons has led scholars to emphasize the historical continuity of confinement as a means of racial oppression and penal slavery, and they frequently cast aside institutional changes as epiphenomenal.
By and large, historians of postwar corrections concluded that the proclaimed inclusion of punishment into the realm of the welfare state was not only doomed to fail, but that the politics and practices of “rehabilitation” were little more than smoke and mirrors.
They enjoyed broad public support at a time when the state’s bolder therapeutic experiments, such as its therapeutic community projects, remained controversial. Pervasive in the West and not unusual in urbanized industrial states of the Northeast, prison forestry camps had nationwide appeal in the postwar years. Brown (1959–1967), the program expanded into a network of three conservation centers and over thirty camps, with more than five thousand prisoners—approximately 18 percent of the state’s prison population—training and working forty-eight hours per week, for which each prisoner received a small wage and sentence reduction in return.
California, however, invested more than any other state in this type of incarceration. Prisoners spent as much as 600,000 man hours per year in emergency situations, fighting fires across the state.
If imprisonment meant the suspension of citizenship and release its restoration, then fighting forest fires constituted one of the very few types of workfare that could convince free citizens to think of prisoners “as full citizens.” Over time, racial difference made such shifts in perception far more fleeting and fragile than was the case with Mrs.
Quick. Third, California’s forest camps stood at the center of not only a relationship between citizens and convicts but also the racially charged context of urban renewal and crisis, on the one hand, and the rural-suburban origins of law-and-order conservatism, on the other.Prisons previously had been, if not in, then certainly of the city, but postwar camps were part of a larger disciplinary network in which improved transportation and communication reduced the administrative challenges of keeping prisoners at remote locations.
As convicts risked their lives to protect citizens against the Golden State’s notoriously volatile cycle of disasters, they crossed a border that divided not just freedom from captivity, but also urban blacks and Latinos from rural whites.