School of Anthropology
Lindsey Raisa Feldman
Thursday, May 10th, 2018
Title: Forging Selfhood: Masculinity, Identity, and Work in Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program
Abstract: The inner workings of the modern United States prison system are highly obscured. This results in the institution being reified, presented as an entity that monolithically enacts punitive mechanisms of control. My dissertation utilizes tools of in-depth ethnography to provide nuance to this view. I argue that prisons are spaces full of institutional contradiction, and that incarcerated individuals are capable of finding cracks in the dehumanizing foundation of modern imprisonment. To do so, I offer a case study of Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program (IWP), in which incarcerated people are contracted by the state to fight wildfires. This labor program is at once exploitative—with little pay for risky work and little material support upon release—while simultaneously transformative for those who fight fires.
By ‘transformative’ I mean that the IWP provides a space for participants to challenge incarceration’s harmful effects on personhood and dignity. I isolate three ways that identities shift through participation on the fire crews: 1) a physical and symbolic movement away from the social cauterization that occurs in the carceral system; 2) a construction of alternative masculine identities based on tenets of vulnerability and intimacy; and 3) an adoption of complex working identities that is antithetical to obedient modes of being on the prison yard. Even as the IWP operates within an inherently punitive system, program participants express non-normative penal identities, and therefore at least partially reject the subjectification of the prison regime. 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.
Committee: Drs. Thomas Sheridan, Diane Austin, Susan Shaw, and William Simmons