Who’s Fighting the Wildfires in California? Slave Labor…

You’ve probably heard about the devastating wildfires in California – but, did you know that the government is using prison labor (slave labor) to fight the fires?

The Camp Fire in Butte County has destroyed more than 151,000 acres and more than 11,700 homes. The death toll is at 79 with as many as 699 people still missing.

The Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles has scorched more than 96,000 acres and left at least three people dead. In both areas, residents are now preparing for heavy rains that will likely end the fires but also result in flash floods and mudslides.

Who is fighting these fires?

In California wildfires earlier this year, the state deployed around 7000 California firefighters – paid professionals – along with about 3500 prisoners, including 58 youthful offenders. To fight the Camp Fire this month, the state deployed around 9400 firefighters – including about 1500 inmates.

Why are inmates working as firefighters in California? Are they being paid the wages of a firefighter, commensurate with the risks that they are exposed to?

Firefighting Programs in Prison

Inmate firefighters are paid $2 per day.

When inmates are fighting an active fire, they are given more compensation – appropriate for when someone risks their life for their job. Then, they are given an additional $1 per hour

Surely, inmates are not being put on the front lines of deadly fires for $1 an hour, are they?

According to the NY Times article linked to above, they are – they are fighting wildfires, structural fires, and vehicle fires, and at least six inmate firefighters have died since 1983.

But since she was released from prison, Ms. Mota said, she also thinks about how, year after year, the wildfires seem to grow stronger. She thinks about how, on average, inmate firefighters are paid $2 per day, and another $1 per hour when fighting active fires. She thinks about how six inmate firefighters have died since 1983, according to the state, and how, ultimately, she hears about so many who, like her, are discouraged from applying or are barred from being firefighters because of their criminal records.

It would be one thing if inmates were willingly, without any coercion, being trained as firefighters and then employed as firefighters after their release from prison. Apparently, that is not happening.

Once an inmate is released, they usually cannot find employment as a firefighter because they don’t meet the education requirements, they are unable to meet the licensing requirements, and, most importantly, because they have a criminal record.

While salaried firefighters earn an average wage of $74,000 a year plus benefits, the government is paying inmates $2 a day and $1 an hour – $1 an hour only when they are out there fighting an active fire… how much money does that save the government?

In California alone, the government is saving an estimated $80-100 million dollars each year

Slave Labor in US Prisons

Nationwide, serving time in prison means being forced into slave labor.

If you aren’t fighting fires, you may be manufacturing products for private companies, working in the kitchen, the laundry room, cleaning bathrooms and hall floors, or any number of other jobs in or around the prison – without any meaningful pay.

The prison (privately owned in some areas), the government, and sometimes private corporations, profit from the forced labor of prison inmates in our country which has the highest rate of incarcerated citizens anywhere in the world.

Why are We Calling it Slave Labor?

It is, isn’t it?

No one chooses to go to prison. Once they are in prison, most people don’t volunteer to work for next to nothing while giving the benefit of their labor to the government or some corporation.

They are told, “You will work, or you will remain in prison longer.” Working gets inmates “work credits” which reduces the amount of time they spend in prison – sometimes as much as 2 days off their sentence for every one day that they work.

Who refuses that? No-one in their right mind.

A choice between 1) forced labor, even life-threatening forced labor, or 2) remaining in prison, away from your family and children for two or three times as many years as you would have been there if you had submitted to the forced labor, is not really a choice at all.

It is involuntary servitude.

Wait, what? Involuntary servitude, i.e. slavery, was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – they can’t do that, can they?

But, what does the Thirteenth Amendment actually say?

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.

That’s right – slavery or involuntary servitude, as a punishment for a crime, is not unconstitutional. Does that make it okay?

History of Slave Labor in US Prisons

In case you missed it – the US prison population is disproportionately composed of minorities. The US justice system is biased against minorities. At every stage of the criminal justice system – traffic stops, decisions to arrest, decisions to prosecute, decisions to convict, decisions to kill, and decisions to incarcerate and for how long – non-whites are at a disadvantage.

Is it okay to force inmates into slavery because the Constitution allows it?

The Constitution used to define African Americans as 3/5 of a person – was that okay, too?

Although “chattel slavery” was ended by the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment, the exception for inmate slave labor allowed states, especially Southern states, to continue to force black people into slavery.

The Civil War may have ended chattel slavery, but the 13th Amendment had a fatal flaw, allowing for an exception from free labor for the incarcerated. Almost immediately, states, especially in the South, used this to control black labor. They began rounding up ex-slaves after the war, passing vagrancy laws that allowed the state to sell their labor. Congressional interference during Reconstruction briefly limited this practice, but by the late 19th century, white rule created a huge economic sector based upon unfree black labor, especially in the prison chain gangs at institutions such as Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, symbol of the Jim Crow era’s murderous regime against black people, as well as in contract labor, where private employers worked black prisoners into the grave. Increasingly, prison authorities compelled labor out of nonblack prisoners as well.

Slavery is alive and well in the United States. Whites and nonwhites are still forced into labor without reasonable compensation in our nation’s prisons, to the financial benefit of government and private corporations.

Why does the United States have the highest rate of incarceration anywhere in the world? Like the original institution of slavery, just look at the obscene amounts of money that are being made from the forced labor…

Criminal Defense Law Firm in Columbia, Lexington, and Myrtle Beach, SC

Lacey Thompson is a SC criminal defense attorney who accepts only criminal defense cases in the Myrtle Beach, Columbia, and Lexington areas of SC. If you have been charged with a crime in SC, you need to get an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side immediately.

Call now at 843-444-6122 or email us through our website to find out how we can help.

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