Forging Selfhood: Social Categorisation and Identity in Arizona's Prison Wildfire Programme

Publication Date01 March 2018
The Howard Journal Vol57 No 1. March 2018 DOI: 10.1111/hojo.12239
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 21–36
Forging Selfhood: Social
Categorisation and Identity in
Arizona’s Prison Wildfire Programme
PhD Candidate, School of Anthropology, University of Arizona, USA
Abstract: This article examines the expressions of identity for participants in the Inmate
Wildfire Program (IWP), a skilled prison labour programme in the US state of Arizona.
The identity of imprisoned individuals is deleteriously shaped by the penal regime’s con-
struction of the social category ‘criminal’. Yetthis process in not totalising. Using evidence
drawn from 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork with prison wildfire fighters, I argue
that participation in the IWP encourages critical thinking, access to open space, and
interactions with the public, which destabilises the label of criminality and allows prison-
ers to engage in positive forms of identity construction. Prison officials can incorporate
aspects of the IWP into other prison programmes in order to promote the construction of
non-carceral identities.
Keywords: categorisation; identity; prison labour; resistance; subject formation
Fieldnotes, 10 June 2016: Twenty-five wildland firefighters walked through the doors
of a local restaurant. They cut a formidable figure. Wearing matching shirts and
fire boots, their faces were sooty and burnt from a three-day battle in the mountains
of Arizona. As the doors closed behind them, the restaurant-goers stood up and
applauded. In rural communities of the western US, wildland firefighters are not
heroes abstractly, but in a directly personal way – landscapes bear the charcoal
scars of fires past, and residents remember which crews saved their properties and
open spaces. This day, a young admirer broke free from his parents’ table and
ambushed one of the crewmembers, hugging his leg and precociously exclaiming:
‘I want to be like you when I grow up!’ The crew laughed, and so especially did
Sammy, whose leg had a beaming boy attached. The crew’s laughter held multiple
meanings; it was a genuine response to the boy’s sweet nature, but it was also an
ironic, inside joke: Sammy was currently serving nine years in prison for possession
of methamphetamines. In fact, the fire crew was made up of 22 prisoners and
three correctional officers. After ruffling the little boy’s hair and sending him back
to his parents, Sammy and the crew graciously accepted the rest of the applause
and made their way to the tables to eat. I sat down beside Sammy intending to ask
him about this encounter, but he pre-empted my question by looking at me with
tears in his eyes, and saying simply: ‘That just healed me’.
This set of fieldnotes describes one of many public interactions that par-
ticipants had in the Inmate Wildfire Program (IWP), a skilled labour
programme offered by the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) in
2017 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
The Howard Journal Vol57 No 1. March 2018
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 21–36
which incarcerated people travel throughout this southwestern US state to
fight wildfires. Their interactions ranged from the exceptional, like in the
excerpt above, to the more mundane, like the simple act of driving through
the desert landscape with the ease of a wildland firefighter. Every day the
crew left the prison, a space where criminality is defined and maintained,
and moved into a more fluid space, somewhere between the social cate-
gories ‘criminal’ and ‘hero’, and somewhere in between the identities that
arise from these categorisations. This space, profound in its murkiness, is
the one explored in the following pages.
I define ‘identity’ as the way crewmembers relate to, and understand,
themselves. This is not an individual pursuit; the social and the indi-
vidual are co-constitutive, and so any discussion of a person’s identity is
also a discussion of the institutions that shape them (Foucault 1995). The
21st Century prison system is one such institution. People are constructed
as ‘criminals’ as soon as they enter the justice system, and through their
sentences, classificatory processes work to shape people’s perceptions of
themselves. Yet, a person is not fully determined by the social structures
in which they reside. On the wildfire crew the potential rigidity of prison’s
stigma becomes destabilised.
In the opening vignette above, a child aspiring to be an incarcerated
man is funny in its irony, but also presents a challenge to the seemingly
totalising effects of incarceration on a person’s identity. In fact, prison
is not a totalising experience, and this article will offer a contribution to
emerging research that examines the assertions of positive identities inside
prison walls (Smoyer 2014). Using data from 15 months of ethnographic
fieldwork with three Arizona prison wildfire crews, I will analyse the
processes by which men who participate in this programme construct new
forms of self-understanding, and the role this programme plays in shaping
the views of prisoners for both the public and correctional officers (COs).
Here, I will draw on the concept of ‘identity work’, defined as ‘anything
people do, individually or collectively, to give meaning to themselves’
(Schwalbe and Mason-Schrock 1996, p.115), to describe how men in the
IWP are in a process of constant negotiation and re-inscription of the
self. I argue that the identity work that takes place in the IWP, unfolding
within the structure of the penal institution, has the effect of destabilising
the reified social category of ‘criminal’ placed upon incarcerated people.
Prisons, Prisoners, and Identity Work
The construction, maintenance, and adaptation of identity for people in
prison can be conceived of as a dialectic between structure and agency.
Prisons in particular lay bare the imposing ways that society – in this
case, the penal regime – shapes people’s senses of self and their actions.
From the early criminological literature that explored the process of
‘secondary adjustments’ (Goffman 1961) of people in prison, scholars have
examined how the social category ‘criminal’ can be embodied by incar-
cerated people, leading to negative self-identification and to criminogenic
behaviours (Jiang and Winfree 2006; Van Tongeren and Klebe 2010).
2017 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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