Sending inmates into the jaws of hell as wildland firefighters

California has an estimated 4,000 prisoners working within Cal Fire on the frontlines of wildfires — taking on one of the most dangerous careers in the United States. Those 4,000 ‘volunteers’ earn a whopping $1 an hour when they’re out in the field, and a generous $1.45-$3.90 daily during training. The Bureau of Labour Statistics notes that firefighters in the US typically earn around $21 hourly. Firefighting is just one among many uses of prisoners as an incredibly cheap labour pool, and the situation gained considerable public attention this year as firefighters spread across the West, attempting to put out massive blazes.

There are considerable problems with the justice system, but prison labour stands out as one of the most stark. Everyone should be earning a fair wage — including inmates. Prisoners aren’t just fighting fires, but also making cheese for Whole Foods, being leased out as farmhands, sewing flags, and maintaining state and national parks. Within individual prison facilities, operators save considerable money by using inmates for labour whenever possible — as for example in prison kitchens, which is a particular concern for privatised prisons that want to maximise profit for themselves and their shareholders. Privatised prisons also use inexpensive prison labour as a way to generate even more profits, as they charge their ‘clients’ considerable sums for the labour of their inmates.

By using prisoners, firms can evade considerable restrictions of labour law. They don’t need to pay minimum wage, they don’t need to provide benefits, and they don’t need to pay close attention to working conditions. When they contract work out to prisons, they don’t even need to see or be accountable for the environments where prisoners work — they order 10,000 US flags, 10,000 flags arrive, no questions asked. Government agencies like Cal Fire, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and so forth also take advantage of prison labour, in an extraordinarily cynical and disturbing form of forced labour. While prisoners technically apply for jobs, most are forced into work because they need to earn some money to support themselves, even if it’s the ridiculously low wages offered to inmates.

Inmates have been volunteering for firefighting since the 1940s, in programmes often designed to help people earn time off for good behaviour. They work on the frontlines alongside civilians despite the fact that civilian and inmate ’employees’ of the same agencies earn disparate salaries for the same work, a profound form of occupational injustice. While many residents of the US may be aware of the issue of prison labour on an abstract level, the high profile of inmate firefighters over the summer really forced the issue into the public eye, making it no longer avoidable as crews fought (and in some cases died) in the brutal conditions of the West this summer.

As if using prisoners as a form of cheap and effectively disposable labour wasn’t bad enough, some are minors. In Washington, a 16-year-old shot himself in the head after escaping from a fire crew. His case highlighted the fact that the rights of juveniles are effectively suspended in the US penal system, where even teenagers are treated like people with no hope of redemption or social value. Instead, they’re pressed into labour at tasks that are difficult even for more experienced and stronger adults — including adults with much more autonomy and the ability to make informed decisions about their lives. While the teen survived and fire officials justified the use of underage labour on the grounds that the teens were involved in ‘low level fire suppression,’ the incident was a chilling reflection of the way we treat prisoners of all ages.

Shockingly, as California — a huge source of prison labour thanks to our dangerously overcrowded prison system —  faces prison realignment and a mandate to reduce the prison population, some state officials have sickeningly suggested that the subsequent decline in prison labour could pose a problem. This cold view of prisoners as little more than a source of cheap labour, rather than human beings enduring conditions ruled unconstitutional by legal authorities, is troubling and it’s a fundamental betrayal of values considered ‘American.’ There is nothing fair or just about deliberately keeping people incarcerated or delaying prison releases in order to retain labourers.

Fire officials (and other users of inmate labour) come up with a variety of ludicrous and utterly disturbing justifications for using inmates as a source of cheap work. Fundamentally, though, these ‘cost savings’ are about violations of human rights, and the products produced by inmates are sold at a ridiculous markup to consumers, whether we’re talking about cheese or firefighting services — Cal Fire claims that using inmates saves the state a substantial sum of money annually, but where is that money going? Is it being reinvested back into the prison system to address systemic problems there? I highly doubt it.

It was my hope that coverage of inmate firefighters would increase interest in and awareness of the troubling implications of using prison labour in the United States. So far, that hasn’t really manifested — the same people who cared about prison labour before still do, and those who were indifferent to the issue continue to be largely indifferent. It’s a distressing testimony to our refusal to confront our complicity in structural social injustices; as I put new license plates on my car or watch fire crews sweating in heavy protective gear on the hillsides of the state, I am directly benefiting from exploitation. There can be a sense that we are trapped in such systems — that I should give up because I need license plates either way — but it would be a mistake to confuse being trapped for shrugging and giving in.

Image: Wildfire, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr