Cheap Prison Labor Becomes an Incentive To Lock More People Up

      In 2017, California used approximately 3500 inmates to fight forest fires at a pay rate of $2/ day plus $1/ hour. In spite of the physical rigor of carrying 60 pound packs of equipment and doing hard labor out in the heat, many prisoners volunteer. While out fighting fires the food is better, the pay is better than for jobs inside prison, and there is more personal freedom. In addition, inmate firefighters receive two days off their sentence for each day of good behavior, as opposed to other jobs where they receive just one. Fighting fires may also have other types of benefits. For example, by working in groups outdoors inmates develop skills such as teamwork, timeliness, and so on that may be valuable after release.

      Regular civilian firefighters are paid a minimum of $17.25/ hr, so the state of California is saving around $80 million per year by using inmates. As California comes to depend on this inmate labor, will the state be able to resist keeping low level offenders eligible for firefighting duty in prison longer?

      In 2014, as California’s prisons were overcrowded to a point deemed unconstitutional by the courts, courts ordered the state to expand a program that allows inmates to earn 2 days off their sentences in return for work and good behavior fighting fires to other types of work as well. The state refused, arguing that would draw down the pool of prisoners it could use to fight fires. In addition to making firefighting less attractive, if non- fire fighter inmates were released earlier, the state would have to reassign firefighters to do the jobs they had been doing or hire civilians, both options it wanted badly to avoid.

      When does reliance on prisoners to do hard to fill jobs at extremely low pay induce society to lengthen sentences just for that purpose?

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An article explaining the arguments presented by the State of California in court to defend not expanding its early release rewards program for fear of not having enough inmates to fight fires.

A description of California’s use of prisoners to fight wildfires from CNN.

An article in the Atlantic explaining how California has trouble getting enough inmates to fight fires and examining some of the ethical issues this raises.

A  discussion in the San Diego Union Tribune about some comparisons between prisoners laboring to fight fires and slavery.

An article critical of this program from the Daily Beast.

PBS Newshour focuses on female inmates fighting California fires.

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