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California’s using modern-day slavery to fight wildfires – and it’s totally legal

These aren't volunteers - and here's how it's happening.

The Mendocino Complex fire (made up of the Ranch and River fires) has already devastated over 400,000 acres of northern California since July 27. The wildfires have taken the lives of 42 people and destroyed 5,000 homes so far – and among the professional firefighters combating the roaring flames are inmates from California prisons. They’re paid $2 a day and $1 an hour for their dangerous work, as opposed to the minimum wage of $11 that Cal Fire firefighters make.

Private prisons have always prioritized economic benefits over the humanity of inmates – this is the prison industrial complex (PIC). The PIC is nothing new, nor is the practice of inmates fighting fires and assisting in other conservation efforts. Inmates have historically been used to fight fires and conserve land when a program in the 1900s was created to have inmates build highways.

In 1946, the first permanent adult conservation camp, also known as a fire camp, was born.

During World War II, inmates were called into action as firefighters to replace the men who left for the war. Today, there are 43 fire camps for the 3,900 men and women who volunteer for the program. While the program seems like a great opportunity for inmates, in reality, it exploits inmates for cheap labor while putting their lives directly in danger.

While the program seems like a great opportunity for inmates, in reality, it exploits inmates for cheap labor while putting their lives directly in danger. Click To Tweet

Fire camps, like many antiquated programs, should be reexamined. Essential reform would be an increase in pay. The minimum wage for Cal Fire firefighters is $11.

So, why do inmates only make a dollar an hour?

It’s not in the interest of private prisons to pay their inmates more quite simply because they don’t have to and they don’t want to. Corporations own private prisons that are only concerned with profiting, not rehabilitating their inmates. When these corporations see dollar signs, they stop seeing inmates as human beings. They profit from keeping them behind bars, and even more so by having them do work for a wage so low, they’re essentially indentured servants. Plus, the state benefits from the extra help in fighting the ravaging flames.

When these corporations see dollar signs, they stop seeing inmates as human beings. Click To Tweet

Sure, the program seems like a great opportunity for inmates.

It’s presented as a nice package: inmates are able to leave their prison cells behind for a rural, minimum-security place to call home. Firefighters in the program receive 2 days off their sentence for every day of good behavior.  Only low-level inmates qualify to volunteer. Inmates serving life sentences or who have been convicted of arson or sex crimes are not eligible. State corrections spokesperson Bill Sessa talks about teamwork being an essential tenet of the program. He boasts the “life skills” inmates will have acquired through the program. It seems like fighting fires might be the best option for some prisoners, because of its aspirational marketing as a reward for good behavior and an opportunity to learn a trade.

It’s important, however, to look at this program through a different lens.

The PIC is about profit, and that profit comes at the price of the humanity of inmates. Paying inmates $1 an hour is completely unethical. That dollar is a sad attempt to distance the work from what it actually is – slavery.

The power dynamic doesn’t lend itself to volunteer work, but to creating the illusion of choice. Click To Tweet

Even though the inmates “volunteer”, it’s important to consider the dynamic of a prison.  

David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said, “you have to understand the uniquely coercive prison environment, where few things are clearly voluntary. In light of the vast power inequality between prisoners and those who employ them, there is a real potential for exploitation and abuse.”

There really is no “volunteering” in a prison. The power dynamic doesn’t lend itself to volunteer work, but to creating the illusion of choice.

When it comes to discussing the PIC and exploitation of inmates, one must consider race, too.

If you haven’t seen the Netflix documentary 13th by Ava Duvernay, I’d suggest getting on that immediately. It delves into the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration, and racial inequality in the criminal justice system. 

According to California DOJ’s crime data report from 2017, more than 70% of those arrested on marijuana charges were nonwhite. Though black people account for only 6.5% of California’s population, they make up 20% of the state’s felony marijuana arrests.

It’s clear that rehabilitation isn’t the priority of the state, but having enough manpower to fight the fires at the lowest cost is. Click To Tweet

This is an example of low-level offenders that are able to “volunteer” for the fire program.

The statistics point to the most dangerous job of fighting fires being disproportionately assigned to black people. The PIC doesn’t just exploit inmates, but specifically nonwhite inmates who consistently lack justice in the system.

The program specifically holds itself in high regard for the life skills it rewards inmates, but the cruel reality is that once the inmates have completed their sentences, they have limited opportunities to use these skills. Almost all California counties requite firefighters be licensed EMTs. 

Anyone with a criminal record, however, cannot become an EMT. 

The PIC doesn’t just exploit inmates, but specifically nonwhite inmates who consistently lack justice in the system. Click To Tweet

Despite receiving the proper training and working in the field, inmates are unable to become firefighters. It’s not the only job those with a criminal record are denied. Nearly 1,800 jobs require occupational licensing that are denied to those with criminal records.

If the program was truly about preparing inmates for the workforce, inmates would be eligible for licenses so they could actually find employment after their sentences.

Nearly 1,800 jobs require occupational licensing that are denied to those with criminal records. Click To Tweet

It’s clear that rehabilitation isn’t the priority of the state, but having enough cheap manpower to fight the fires is.

If rehabilitation were important, then all inmates should be able to earn 2 days off their sentence for good behavior, not just those in the frontlines of the fires.  While headlines might lead you to believe the fire program is unquestionably good for inmates, it’s not as it seems. Inmates cannot truly rehabilitate until the PIC is abolished.

Jackie Weisser

By Jackie Weisser

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