California firefighters have been battling unprecedented blazes and staffing shortages this wildfire season. Before the pandemic, thousands of the state’s wildfire crews came from state prisons—incarcerated people can make around $1 an hour containing fires, clearing brush, and doing other dangerous labor. But since COVID, many incarcerated firefighters have been released early.

That shortage has called attention to the state’s reliance on prison labor to fight fires, and to a longstanding critique of the program: how hard it is for those same people to become professional firefighters once they’re free. 

Formerly incarcerated firefighter Matthew Hahn photographed outside of his home in San Jose, Calif. for The Marshall Project and Slate.

Text by Christie Thompson.

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