Society for the Anthropology of North America
Oral Presentation Session
During most California fire seasons, including the most recent, an increasing number of news articles decry the injustice: imprisoned people are hired to fight wild land fires for two cents an hour, yet barred from longterm firefighting careers with the state of California upon release. But despite increasing public support for “fair chance” hiring, criminal record-based restrictions continue to grow, particularly in professions where people who have not been convicted may interface directly with those who have. How do we make sense of these contradictory investments? Building on legal scholar Sandra Mayson’s (2015) argument for an approach to the collateral consequences of a criminal record as mechanisms of “preventative risk regulation” rather than punishment, this paper considers the role of occupational restrictions in a society that relies on surveillance, policing and punishment to address most problems. Drawing from ethnographic research among job seekers with felony convictions and their advocates, I argue that criminal records restrictions fulfill an essential function: they mark suspect people and through their exclusion, provide an illusion of safety—assurance that the world has been neatly divided into trustworthy and risky subjects. Through these restrictions, risk feels minimized; harm feels prevented. Through close examination of the struggle for inclusion in the firefighting profession, the paper seeks to add to a conversation about how to best challenge criminalizing practices rooted in protective logic.