Prisoners are Exploited as Low-Wage Firefighters as Wildfires Decimate the West


    Climate change threatens human life in many ways, one of the most frightening being how it will increase the severity and frequency of large-scale wildfires. As the climate warms, more moisture will be evaporated off of the ground and out of the underbrush, creating the perfect conditions for fires to start and spread out of control.

    We have seen the terrible impacts of out of control wildfires in California during the last several months. A single wildfire can rapidly decimate tens of thousands of acres of land, displacing thousands of Americans and destroying entire neighborhoods.

    The west coast of the United States is most at risk to wildfires (the map below is FEMA’s 1994-2013 wildfire risk map) and this will not change as the climate warms—the risks will simply escalate in the most impacted areas.

    Given the dangers posed by wildfires in these western states, one would think that firefighters would be highly professionalized, well-funded, and highly compensated. Sadly, this is often not the case and many states which experience wildfires have established slave labor programs that get inmates to act as firefighters.

    Legalized Slavery and Firefighting

    Contrary to public opinion, the 13th Amendment didn’t actually ban slavery outright. It has a loophole that lets prisons establish labor programs where inmates are expected to work for wages that are far below the legal wage—while these wages vary, they typically amount to dollars a day, or mere cents an hour, depending upon the state and job. While the majority of these prison laborers perform internal work for the prison (e.g. cooking, cleaning, maintenance, farming, etc.), provide goods or services to prison industry (e.g. building office furniture or working in a call-center), or work on standard public works projects (e.g. picking up trash along the highway), some prisons also staff fire departments.

    The state with the most inmate firefighters is California. According to an investigation by Mother Jones, between 30% and 40% of California’s forest firefighters are under correctional supervision, most of whom are serving time for non-violent felonies. Rather than live in the prison, these inmate firefighters live in fire camps in the woods, working every day to fight wildfires or clear brush to reduce the risk of future fires breaking out. Inmates are paid $2 a day while clearing brush and $2 an hour when working a shift (24 hours on, 24 hours off) fighting an active wildfire. Needless to say, these inmates aren’t offered comprehensive health benefits, or any of the other benefits that a union firefighter would be due.

    California is not alone in its inmate firefighter program, and numerous states (e.g. Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming) have similar programs. While details vary, these programs are all based on a similar structure to the California program.

    Image Credit: US Dept. of Agriculture – Link

    Firefighting is not a safe profession, and numerous inmates have died fighting fires, while many more have been injured. For example, in February 2016, an inmate firefighter named Shawna Jones was killed by a falling boulder while fighting a wildfire near Malibu. In May 2017, an inmate firefighter named Mathew Beck was crushed to death by a 3,000lb tree while clearing brush. In July 2017, an inmate firefighter named Frank Anaya died in a chainsaw accident while working to head off a wildfire near San Diego. All three of these inmates were non-violent drug offenders, in jail for minor offenses (e.g. Jones was in jail for parole violations).

    According to estimates, California alone avoids paying approximately $80 million a year in wages and benefits by using prison labor instead of professional firefighters. While this may sound positive, it represents an exploitative arrangement that reduces the number of professional firefighters who are employed by the state and capitalizes upon vulnerable and desperate inmates.

    Savings or Exploitation?

    Prison labor is sold as a way to reduce expenses and give inmates something to do to occupy their time. While there is some truth in this—prison labor can be used to teach valuable skills like carpentry while keeping inmates out of trouble—the sad fact is that inmate firefighters aren’t tracked to get a job as a firefighter once they are released. While many fire departments will let certain felons apply for a job as a firefighter, most are selective and a felony puts the applicant at a severe disadvantage.

    Each inmate firefighter who is working the line takes a job space for a professional firefighter, saving the state money, but also reducing the number of well-paying civil service jobs available to society. This shift mimic previous patterns of exploitation, specifically how states and localities have replaced union maintenance and construction workers with low-paid prisoners. Not only is this a legal way for states to violate labor laws, but it strikes at the heart of public sector unionization, giving states that ability to undercut union negotiations—states can simply levy the threat that maybe the state should start using prison labor and suddenly public sector unions lose a great deal of their bargaining power.

    In addition to the moral and worker rights issues created by inmate firefighting program, they can produce political pressures that severely harm inmates. For example, when California courts were debating what to do in response to prison overcrowding, the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris argued that early parole wasn’t a good option because it would deplete the state of its low-paid workforce. This illustrates how the state can become incentivized to keep more people in prison simply to bolster their labor pool and avoid having to hire paid workers. This type of incentive structure is a perversion of justice that puts every American just a step away from being entrapped in a “justice” system that doesn’t just want to enforce the law, but also fill the prisons with people to exploit.

    © Josh Sager – October 2017

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