Involuntary Servitude: Prisoners Fight California Wildfires

Thanks to climate change, California’s wildfire season got an early start in 2016 – in February. According to the BBC, 30 percent of California’s firefighters (roughly 4,000) are state prison inmates. They make $2 a day while at fire camp, and $1 an hour while on a fire line – saving state taxpayers $80 million a year. Inmates also earn two days off their sentence for every day they’re on a fire. The work of battling a 100 foot high fire wall is incredibly dangerous, and inmate firefighters suffer a “handful” of injuries every year – usually from falling branches and debris.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

While the BBC feature quotes inmates as being honored by the “privilege” of fighting fires, the inmate fire fighting program is taking place against the backdrop of a federal court order requiring California to reduce overcrowding. In 2011, the The Supreme Court upheld  a lower court ruling ordering California to cut their prison populations (by reducing the sentences of low level offenders).

State correction officials complied by offering an early prison-release program to all minimum security offenders – but only “so long as it proves not to deplete the numbers of inmate firefighters.” In 2014, state Attorney General Kamala Harris argued against the program, concerned it would severely impact fire camp participation “a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

The New Jim Crow

In other words, California is openly balancing the state budget on the backs of prison slave labor.

Given that low income minorities comprise the great majority of California’s prison population – for circumstances largely beyond their control – this policy clearly violates the UN Convention on Human  Rights (which forbids slavery and involuntary servitude).

In fact, it sounds a lot like southern Jim Crow laws.*

In The New Jim Crow , lawyer Michelle Alexander describes in detail how urban police deliberately target minority neighborhoods for enforcement of drug possession and other victimless crimes. She also cites numerous examples of minority arrestees forced to cop guilty pleas owing to their inability to obtain competent legal representation.

Below prisoners fight a 2014 fire in Shasta County.

*In the Jim Crow system that followed Reconstruction, most southern states passed arbitrary vagrancy laws that were used to imprison black males and force them into unpaid slave labor on plantations, on the railroads and in factories and mines. See 1941: The Year Slavery Finally Ended


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