Forging Selfhood: Masculinity, Identity and Work in Arizona's Inmate Wildfire Program
AuthorFeldman, Lindsey Raisa
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction, presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractThe United States prison system is a true ‘black box’ of modern society; most penal philosophies, policies, and daily realities are obscured from the outside world. Because of this obscurity, the prison system is often presented as a reified institution that unilaterally enacts punitive and neoliberal mechanisms of control. My dissertation utilizes tools of in-depth ethnography to provide nuance to this potentially monolithic view. Lynch (2010) and Rubin (2015) argue that any state’s prison system, and indeed any one complex or yard, must be put in its social and ideological context. I draw on these premises to argue that prisons should be considered living, breathing spaces where individuals are capable of manifesting their own notions of selfhood each day. I explain how incarcerated people in a particular prison program find cracks in the seemingly solid, dehumanizing foundation of modern imprisonment, taking hold of spaces where access to dignity and hope remain. I offer a case study of Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program (IWP), in which incarcerated people are contracted by the state to fight wildfires. I became a certified wildland firefighter and spent 15 months fighting over 30 fires alongside three prison fire crews. This labor program presents an experiential paradox for its participants. It is at once exploitative—with little pay for risky work, and little material support upon release from prison—while simultaneously transformative for those who fight fires. By ‘transformative,’ I mean that certain aspects of the job of wildfire fighting provide individuals with more complex and powerful notions of selfhood than would otherwise be obtainable on the prison yard. There are three major aspects of incarcerated peoples’ identities that are positively impacted by the IWP. They are: 1) a physical and symbolic movement away from the social categorization that occurs in the carceral system; 2) a construction of alternative masculine identities based on tenets of vulnerability, intimacy, and racial inclusion; and 3) an expression of complex working identities that offers a sense of self that is antithetical to the obedient and routinized modes of being on the yard. Even as this labor program operates within the strictures of an inherently punitive regime, it provides space for participants to reject certain aspects of modern incarceration’s deleterious effects. Understanding the processes by which this program persists, and is experienced at a daily level for its participants, offers a more thorough view of the social complexities of modern incarceration. As such, this dissertation offers a dynamic case study that furthers debates in a broad array of literatures, including the anthropology of masculinity, the anthropology of work, and the anthropology of the prison.
Degree ProgramGraduate College