It's fire season in the American West. For California, that means drawing on thousands of low-level felons to fill its firefighting ranks. The inmates-as-firefighters practice has gained some public attention in recent years, bringing a new dimension to the discussion about whether the current system of inmate labor is fair.
In our March/April issue, writer Graeme Wood reported from Colorado Correctional Industries, a complex in Cañon City where prisoners pick blackberries, farm tilapia, make furniture, and perform other forms of manual labor. The fruits of these labors are often sold to consumers throughout the United States. "If you have profited from the work of a person in chains, you almost certainly don't know about it," Wood writes. "And by keeping the products unlabeled and unnoticed, prison labor systems all over the country have skirted uproar over whether prison labor is fair and just."
Volunteer inmate firefighters, meanwhile, are paid $2 a day, with a bonus of $2 an hour when they're in the front lines of flames, Mother Jones reports. It's hot, strenuous work, and shifts can last 24 hours, according to BuzzFeed. Inmates sustain serious injuries every year, such as getting hit by debris, or breaking an arm, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson told the BBC. Because inmate labor is so cheap, CDCR says its "fire camps" save the state more than $100 million a year, KQED reported in 2014.
Firefighting inmates interviewed by the media appear to prefer fire camp over prison, but many say it's the toughest work they've ever done. One inmate firefighter profiled by BuzzFeed, Demetrius Barr, certainly had mixed feelings, citing both a sense of accomplishment from his role, and resentment over the backbreaking work and low pay. Wood's reporting uncovered the same contractions:*
Everyone, including critics of the prison labor system, seems to understand that to close down prison labor entirely would be a tragic overreaction to some of the morally worrisome aspects of the prison labor system. "What's the alternative?" asks [labor historian Alex] Lichtenstein. "Have them sitting idle and lifting weights?"
At the same time, Lichtenstein says, employing incarcerated workers is a recipe for exploitation: "Prison laborers can't join a union and are not subject to protective labor legislation. Prisoners can't consent to experimental drug trials, so how can they consent to a labor contract?"
The main worry among prison-reform advocates is that California's reliance on inmate firefighters might make the state reluctant to pass reforms to reduce the number of inmates eligible for the job, Mother Jones reports. As BuzzFeed's reporting underscored, inmates who are considered trustworthy enough to work in fire camps are among those who would be the first to gain early release from their sentences.
Unlike prisoner-made products, it's at least obvious when a firefighter is in fact an inmate, as their uniforms are clearly labeled. And people whose homes the inmates protect seem to have little prejudice. "They put up 'thank you' banners and bring apple pie," said Bryan Earnhart, one of the inmate firefighters interviewed by the BCC. If only consumers could know which of their basketballs and T-shirts were the product of prison labor, they could similarly choose whether or not to support the system.
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*UPDATE — September 29, 2015: A previous version of this article mistakenly attributed Graeme Wood's quote to Demetrius Barr.