Wildfires and Prisoners: a Cinderella Story or Just Plain Ole Exploitation?

Whats in this story

Recently, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) tweeted about California prison inmates being used to fight its wildfires, which have been some of the

most-life-threatening in history. The post reads: “Today, more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, are battling wildfire flames throughout CA. Inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire’s spread.” While the post was seemingly intended to boast about the program and the hope of eradicating these deadly wildfires, it actually raised some eyebrows and even outright backlash from the online community. The morality of the endeavor seems to be the biggest question even if the inmates are “volunteers”.

Besides outrage over the fact that youth offenders are fighting these fires as well is the subject of pay. Inmates who fight wildfires are reportedly paid $1 an hour plus $2 a day. With shifts sometimes being as long as a 72 hours, this means about $84 to risk one’s life. Though inmates themselves report feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment after having done this work (see:What it’s like to be a California Inmate Fighting Wildfires), this paltry pay is exploitative no matter its legality.

In general, the practice of prison labor comes as a result of the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery, but includes the caveat: “except as a punishment for crime… party shall have been duly convicted”. During the 19th century though, when chattel slavery was legally abolished, this caveat was distinctly included to further disenfranchise African Americans.

Though slavery had officially ended, asinine laws known as Black Codes, targeting blacks for being unemployed or for loitering for example, replaced slavery and even sent some freeman back to their former plantations to labor for their masters as prisoners. This is the idea behind Slavery by Another Name, the concept being analyzed in the book written by Douglas A. Blackmon. Though slavery itself is as ancient as the Bible, the timing of chattel slavery and the use of slave labor as punishment for a crime conjures more ethical questions than can be answered; so while the idea of inmates as firemen, who are essentially heroes, seems apropos, our prison system sullies any attempt at nobility or even decency.

It must be noted that not just any inmate can volunteer to fight fires as the program appears to use discretion. An article at vox.com states, “It comprises only inmates who earn a

minimum-custody status through good behavior behind bars and excludes arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang affiliates, and those serving life sentences. To join the squad, inmates must meet high physical standards and complete a demanding course of training.” While this minimizes the exploitative nature of the program, one might be incredulous to believe that the program is strictly voluntary. Inmates have reported being treated better and having the ability to leave prison grounds as benefits to take part in the program; however, the fact that it only pays $1 an hour screams of desperation.

Outside of prison, volunteer firefighting is a thing, but we’re not talking housefires here, we are talking fires that consume entire ecosystems with the power to ravage everything in its path, including some people who have died while fighting them. Other prison jobs include tasks such as: plumbing, cleaning, light electrician work, and cooking – hardly anything life-threatening, making it ever clearer that the program need be reformed. If it were up to me, these inmates would not only be paid more, but they’d also be guaranteed jobs within the fire department and have many of the obstacles of obtaining employment removed; since yes, some of these inmates are unable to work as firemen upon release because of their felony records.

In the end, what these men do is nothing short of heroic, life-saving, and life-changing; but it is also money-saving. So, the question is: is rehabilitation or money the motivation for inmates as firefighters, because if it’s the latter, our nation will continue to have to put out the fires of prison injustice before we truly witness reform.