Human rights shouldn’t end for prisoners after the bars slam shut behind them. Instead of giving prisoners the dignity that all humans deserve, authorities in California use them as slave laborers in their fight against wildfires.
In light of recent fires like the Getty and Hillside wildfires, public interest in exploitative prison labor practices has once again been reignited. As inmates from state and local prisons across California risk their lives to fight on the front lines, they get little in return.
Incarcerated firefighters make as little as $6 a day when assisting civilian crews, and an additional $1 an hour if they actively fight a fire. In total, they can make up to $26 a day depending on their skill level.
In addition to earning meager wages for their risky work, incarcerated firefighters are robbed of opportunities to learn skills they can actually utilize once they get out of prison.
Firefighters need to be licensed Emergency Medical Technicians in order to be certified, and most EMT training programs around the state require a clean criminal background.
One bill introduced in the California Assembly in February aims to “provide a pathway” for previously incarcerated people to get jobs in fire departments. However, this bill lacks specific details on how it plans to build that pathway.
Not only does California need to create a way for past prisoners to get jobs as firefighters, but it also needs to stop exploiting the bodies and labor of current ones as well.
Civilian firefighters who work alongside these prisoners make on average $73,860 each year plus benefits. They are also four times less likely than incarcerated firefighters to be badly injured while on shift according to data obtained by Time.
The striking contrast of treatment between the civilian and incarcerated firefighters is barbaric and violates the human rights of prisoners in these programs.
These prisoners deserve the opportunity to actually rehabilitate themselves in a dignified way. If the state wants to rely on the fruits of prison labor, those laborers deserve fair pay and to later make a career out of the skills they obtain while behind bars.
California needs to pass comprehensive legislation that writes in protections for these prisoners including improving safety protocols, reducing the 24-hour shifts they often work and allowing them to unionize behind bars.
Modern-day slavery is not just limited to California. Under the 13th Amendment, slavery and indentured servitude are illegal “except as a punishment for crime” everywhere in the United States.
The exploitation of prison labor is so common that even private companies use this extremely vulnerable workforce to cut costs.
It is not enough for California to simply reform the way they handle incarcerated firefighters. What is truly required to end the continuance of slavery is to amend the constitution to cut out the punishment loophole within the 13th Amendment.
The ongoing debate about whether or not prison labor should be used in response to natural disasters isn’t going away anytime soon, and it will only become more pressing as climate change increases their frequency.