Calfiornia Firefighters and the US prison Industrial Complex

The US prison system (aka the “US prison industrial complex“) is clearly absurd. Not only does it have the highest incarceration rate of any country with a prison population of more than 2m people (see top ten list from Wikipedia below).

Prisons are often run for profit and prisoners routinely have to engage in forced labor (that some call modern slavery). If prisoners refuse to work they have to face disciplinary action (sometimes including solitary confinement (which some consider torture)) and have to stay longer in prison. Take some quotes from another Wikipedia article on the penal labor system in the US:

Penal labor in the United States is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” […]

Responsible for the largest prison population in the United States (over 140,000 inmates) the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is known for being one of the most profitable prison systems in the country in part due to their prison labor system.[34] Prisoners are engaged in various forms of labor with tasks ranging from agriculture and animal husbandary, to manufacturing soap and clothing items.[34] The inmates receive no salary or monetary remuneration for their labor, but receive other rewards, such as time credits, which could work towards cutting down a prison sentence and allow for early release under mandatory supervision. Prisoners are allotted to work up to 12 hours per day. […]

Three prisoners – Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council – who led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement have been in solitary confinement since the start of the labor strike. Protests took place in three Alabama prisons, and the movement has smuggled out videos and pictures of abusive conditions, and authorities say the men will remain in solitary confinement indefinitely.

Council, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, said: “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have [prisoners] that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.” […]

Prison in-sourcing” has grown in popularity as an alternative to outsourcing work to countries with lower labor costs. A wide variety of companies such as Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Target, IBM, Texas Instruments, Boeing, Nordstrom, Intel, Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, Aramark, AT&T, BP, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike, Honda, Macy’s and Sprint and many more actively participated in prison in-sourcing throughout the 1990s and 2000s. […]

white vehicle near tall tree at cloudy sky during daytime
The Calfornia firefighters

Now to the California firefighters. California is regularly and increasingly ravaged by wildfires (hello climate crisis). In these emergency situations, many of the firefighters working on the front line are actually inmates of the California prison system. Usually, these inmates are tasked with the hardest and most dangerous works (i.e. chopping down corridors in difficult terrain to prevent the fire from spreading further) Currently, however, many inmates are not available due to the coronavirus. The NYT writes in a current piece:

[…] hundreds of other inmate firefighters were absent from the fire lines. They had already gone home, part of an early release program initiated by Gov. Gavin Newsom to protect them from the coronavirus. […] Some have complained that participants were released just when the state needed them most.

“The inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires,” said Mike Hampton, a former corrections officer who worked for decades at an inmate fire camp. “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?”

Mr. Newsom’s answer is that prisoners faced another threat. Across the United States there have been 112,436 infections of inmates and correctional officers and 825 have been killed by the virus, according to a New York Times database. In four of the six prisons that train incarcerated firefighters, there have been more than 200 infections each among inmates and staff members, according to The Times.

The quoted statement is clearly absurd. Inmates were released not on a whim, but because the prison system was not able to protect them from the virus. If fire is the problem, then hiring fire fighters is the answer, not keeping prisoners in inhumane conditions and forcing them to do the most dangerous part of the work.

Prison work as an opportunity

Don’t get me wrong – I believe that the opportunity to work in prison is a good thing. Working gives you a sense of direction and self-efficacy. It can be way to learn important skills and a means of rehabilitation. But work must be an opportunity, rather than sheer exploitation. I also belief it is good thing to allow prisoners to work as firefighters. It can give them an enormous feeling of worth and accomplishment. The problem is how it is done.

All kinds of labor, even prison labor, must get a decent wage. Work in prison must path the way for work outside prison. Currently, this is usually not the case. Inmate firefighters in California, for example, are not allowed to continue working as a firefighter once they are released from prison. I really think this is grotesque.

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