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US Prisoners Are Fighting Wildfires For 50 Cents An Hour

Inmate firefighters, who are paid $1 an hour as part of California's conservation prison-camp program, work the Rim Fire threatening Yosemite. (Jae C. Hong / AP)
Inmate firefighters, who are paid $1 an hour as part of California's conservation prison-camp program, work the Rim Fire threatening Yosemite. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

Inmate firefighters, who are paid $1 an hour as part of California’s conservation prison-camp program, work the Rim Fire threatening Yosemite. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

Across the western United States—from Colorado and Wyoming, to Montana and Washington—there is a growing reliance on prison labor to combat the rising threat of climate change-induced wildfires, which have grown in length, frequency and intensity in recent years.

Inmates in California and Nevada are being paid $1 an hour to fight the wildfires. That’s twice as much as prisoners serving time at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, who made 50 cents an hour fighting 13 forest fires in Arizona last year.Austerity has reduced federal firefighting expenditures by 40 percent since the 1980s, forcing budget strapped state and local agencies to pick up the slack. So they’ve turned to prison labor, which is dirt cheap thanks to a loophole in the 13th amendment, which states:

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.

The California Department of Corrections publicizes its Conservation Camp—which trains prisoners to respond to fires, floods and earthquakes—as a “rehabilitation program” that has the added benefit of saving the state $80 million a year. What isn’t mentioned is the back-breaking labor that goes unpaid to make those savings happen.

“The inmates often labor in 90-degree heat; they carry packs that often weigh 50 pounds or more and face not only fire but also rattlesnakes, bees, rough terrain and falling debris,” reports Al Jazeera America, adding that inmates have died as a result: 

In 2012 a 22-year-old Airway Heights crew member [at Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane, Washington] was killed only a few months before his release date, electrocuted while felling trees near a power line. Fatalities are rare when inmates are put on the front line of firefighting, but programs in other states have, likewise, had instances of injury and death…For their work, Airway Heights crew members earn 62 cents an hour. For overtime hours, it’s 92 cents.

Most of the media coverage surrounding the rising use of inmate labor to fight wildfires has painted the program as popular among prisoners who are happy to be outside performing a job they can be proud of instead of locked in a cage with nothing to pass the time.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with providing inmates with first responder training that gives them a sense of purpose and may come in handy once they’re released, there is no moral justification for such pathetically low, sweatshop-rivaling wages regardless of how fulfilling it is for some, especially given the laborious and dangerous nature of the job.

Julie Hutchinson, battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told to the New York Times that prisoner-firefighters are “out in the community, paying back for their mistakes.” This is a commonly used argument, but it fails to take into account the fact that prisoners are already paying for their “mistakes” with their freedom, not to mention the legalized discrimination they will be subjected to for the rest of their lives after release. And (not that it should matter, but) keep in mind that the prison labor pool is typically filled with non-violent offenders. 

Unfortunately, prisoners are easy to exploit since they have no voice and are seen as undeserving of basic rights. But the exploitation of any workforce impacts all workers by pushing wages down for everyone. In the case of inmate firefighters, public employees are forced to compete with a cheap, non-unionized workforce that doesn’t require benefits, sick days, a living wage or a safe work environment. It’s a CEO’s wet dream.

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8 Comments
  1. The incentive for states to incarcerate people to access slave wages and save money is just plain wrong. Thanks Rania for bringing this issue up. For all of the capitalists’ talk about having the right incentives and I think about the incentives they’ve created:
    – more prisons and prisons for profit
    – schools for profit instead of education
    – healthcare for profit
    – lobby politicians and influence government
    – war for profit
    – police state and surveillance state for profit
    – etc, etc.

    It’s not supposed to be this way…

    November 30, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on digger666.

    December 1, 2013
  3. observer #

    Look in to inmate wages for work performed behind prison walls.
    Its less than 50 cents per hour in most cases.

    December 1, 2013
  4. Mark Haywood #

    Factory labor in China is prison labor paid a slave wage.

    December 1, 2013
  5. Maria Campos #

    Hopefully something could be done about the slave labor due to TITLE XV. an excuse to use prisoners as slaves. Even though they get food, clothing and shelter, they have families that they could support with a decent wage. Or save for themselves when out of prison.

    December 3, 2013

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