Inmates unfairly paid $2 an hour while fighting California fires

Statewide catastrophes often wind up revealing severe flaws within a state’s economic system. California’s wildfires which blazed through more than 200,000 acres, all through the Sierra Nevada foothills and Los Angeles shoreline, throughout the month of November, are now 100 percent contained, according to The New York Times.

Aside from devastating the state’s landscape, as well accruing a death count of 87 people, California’s relentless fires have showcased a stark economic divide within the state — one involving severely underpaid inmates working as firefighters. The wealthy are able to hire their personal “concierge” firefighters while everyone else gets their help from an unorthodox place: the Californian prison complex.

Currently, there are 3,700 inmates voluntarily working at fire camps, 2,600 of those inmates working directly to combat fires, as reported by The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Furthermore, these inmates are being unfairly paid $2 per day, including an extra $1 when fighting actual fires, according to a report by CDCR.

I do not think that prisoners deserve this kind of pay and my ideology does not align with the argument that they’ll learn their “lesson” by being on the front lines of fighting relentless blazes. I believe, and excuse me if you consider this “extremist,” prisoners should be paid at least minimum wage like the rest of us. This allows them to save some money and start forming a plan for their eventual release.

Back in 1865, when the thirteenth amendment,  which banned slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the United States,  passed, private corporations were far from pleased. For the sake of capitalism, the cut-throat economic system exalted by those it benefits and criticized by the marginalized, to thrive — you need cheap labor, and a lot of it.

Since the thirteenth amendment banned slavery, a largely overlooked clause was added to the final version of the amendment. The original amendment read as follows: “All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave; and the Congress shall have power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere in the United States.”

The final version; however, is: “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.”

In essence, slavery was reformed in a manner where corporations could still benefit from free labor, and $2 an hour is basically free labor, in a manner that the public would completely support.

Who cares about criminals after all, they’re criminals, right? Wrong — prisoners, specifically those who choose to take part in this little to no-paying work, are people. Moreover, if you would still like to view them as non-human, which, to say the least is problematic, many of those serving to firefight are of the “lowest classification for inmates based on their sustained good behavior in prison,” according to CDCR. In other words, this program includes inmates who have committed nonviolent offenses such as theft, drug and alcohol-related crimes, and bribery.

Yet, then there’s the money argument. According to an article on prison labor by the New York Post, “Proponents argue it saves the state between $90 million and $100 million a year and helps inmates learn new skills while working in a team environment.”

However, this only further proves my point. A capitalist powerhouse state such as California, doesn’t necessarily care about ethics, but rather is concerned with making exorbitant amounts of money; the easiest way to accomplish this is by means of exploitative labor. Prisoners are easy to profit from, hold few constitutional rights and are chastened, both severely and immediately, if they fail to follow directions. Now, I am aware that I used the word “capitalist” in a rather critical way throughout my article. Try not to to go all ”Red Scare” on me and immediately deem me a communist. I simply believe prisoners should be paid far more than $2 a day, especially when they’re fighting some of the most deadly fires that California has ever experienced.

I mentioned the “moneyed 1 percent” earlier and would like to end with this: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, celebrities in the upper echelon of societal ranks, have “called in private firefighters to save their Hidden Hills home from the ongoing Woolsey wildfire,” according to an November Vanity Fair article.

American International Group is, for example, one insurance corporation that provides this “concierge” firefighting service. According to NBC, 42 percent of people eligible for AIG’s “Wildfire Protection Unit” services are a part of Forbes 400 Richest Americans.  

California, your staunch economic divide is showing. While the rich are phoning in their personal A-Team for help, the rest of California is left getting help from, oftentimes, unexperienced prisoners who are paid $2 a day for 24-hour shifts, and that’s upsetting.

One Comment

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    Dale Lendrum

    I’ve served time and fed a lot of CDCR fire crew members during the years that I was locked up. I can tell you first hand that these individuals are subjected to rigorous physical and mental training in addition to fire prevention and fire fighter training on a daily basis. They commit and dedicate themselves to this service while they are incarcerated and in my opinion are worthy of clemency anytime they help save life, limb, or property. Think about it. If grand theft of $2,000 can land one in prison for 3 – 5 years, how much should risking one’s life and saving a $500,000 home or human being be worth? Mahalo for this piece, the only thing O would offer is that they aren’t “unexperienced” but rather “under-experienced.”

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