Graduate Directory

Abby Cunniff
  • Pronouns they/them
  • Title
    • PhD Candidate
  • Division Social Sciences Division
  • Department
    • Environmental Studies Department
  • Email
  • Office Location
    • Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, 123
  • Mail Stop Environmental Studies

Summary of Expertise

Abby Cunniff studies environmental justice and California prisons, from physical infrastructure problems like water and air quality within prisons to labor programs outside prisons, where incarcerated people fight fires, clear roads, fill sandbags, and protect habitats. Their public scholarship has focused on pressing issues that incarcerated people face due to prison conditions and climate change, while their academic work has focused on understanding prison labor as part of climate adaptation labor and within the politics of prison abolition. 


Their dissertation, “'Someone Has To Do It': Incarcerated Workers in California Forests," is a labor history of California’s prison fire camp program from 1970-2020. It asks under what conditions incarcerated workers became the "infantry" of wildfire response in the state and how racial capitalism shaped this program into a climate change response workforce. This contemporary history opens up critical inquisitions about labor and power within climate planning and environmental change. 

Research Interests

Environmental Justice, Climate Change Adaptation, Racial Capitalism, Wildfire, Political Ecology, Labor Studies

Biography, Education and Training

BA from Wesleyan University, American Studies with a concentration in Indigenous Politics

Honors, Awards and Grants

2023 Switzer Fellowship, Switzer Foundation

2022 Qualifying Exam Honors, Environmental Studies, UC Santa Cruz

2022 Dean’s Travel Grant, UC Santa Cruz

2020 Global Community Health Fellowship, UC Santa Cruz

2016 Davenport Public Research Grant, Wesleyan University

2016 Dean’s List, Wesleyan University

Selected Publications

Peer Reviewed:

Cunniff, Abby. “On the Fire Line in 1970 and On Strike in 1971: Black Radicalism and Incarcerated Workers in California’s Conservation Camp Program.” Punishment & Society. In Review.


Johnson, Leigh, Michael Mikulewicz, Patrick Bigger, Ritodhi Chakraborty, Abby Cunniff, P. Joshua Griffin, Vincent Guermond, Nicole Lambrou, Megan Mills-Novoa, Benjamin Neimark, Sara Nelson, Costanza Rampini, Pasang Sherpa, and Gregory Simon. 2023. “Intervention: The Invisible Labor of Climate Change Adaptation.” Global Environmental Change 83:102769. doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2023.102769.


Cunniff, Abby. “Environmental Injustice in California Prisons: Infrastructure, Pollution, and Prisoner Health.” Journal of Global Environmental Justice. Spring 2022.


“Militia, Security, and Smallpox in Middletown Settler Society as related to the Wangunk people (1754-1785).” Journal of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut. Fall 2017.



Writing for the Public: 

“2 California Prisons Face Imminent Flooding. They Must Be Evacuated Now.” Truthout, April 14, 2023.


“Fire Country Is Brought to You by Austerity, Mass Incarceration, and Climate Change.” Jacobin, October 9, 2022.


“California Is Dependent on Prison Labor for Fighting Fires. This Must End.” Truthout, September 23, 2022.


Cunniff, Abby, and Jarrod Shanahan. “Judah Schept’s Coal, Cages, Crisis: Seeing the Prison Landscape.” The Brooklyn Rail, September 1, 2022


"Brutal Island." Los Angeles Review of Books. May 17, 2022.


Cunniff, Abby, and Summer Sullivan. "This Prison in California Forced Incarcerated People to Drink Arsenic for Years." Truthout. February 13, 2022. 


Californians United for a Responsible Budget, "We Are Not Disposable: The Toxic Impact of Prisons and Jails,” October 2016. 



Cunniff, Abby. “Book Review: Coal, Cages, Crisis: The Rise of the Prison Economy in Central Appalachia.” Crime, Media, Culture. April 2023.

Selected Presentations

Moderator and presenter. September 2023. “Unfolding Histories of the Carceral State.” Midwest World History Association. Chicago, IL.


Poster presentation. April 2023. “A Labor History of California’s Incarcerated Firefighters.” Environmental Justice and the Common Good, Santa Clara University.


Co-organizer and panelist. March 2023. “Incarceration and Climate Change.” American Association of Geography. Denver, CO.


Panelist. March 2023. “Wildfires and Prison Labor: Questions of Social and Climate Justice.” Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. Eugene, OR.


Moderator. November 2022. “Decarceration and the County Jail.” American Society of Criminology. Atlanta, GA.


Panelist. November 2022. “Author Meets Critic: Captives by Jarrod Shanahan.” American Society of Criminology. Atlanta, GA.


Panelist. March 2022. “Invisible Labor of Climate Change Adaptation.” American Association of Geography.

Teaching Interests

Environmental Justice, Environmental Human Rights, Environmental Policy