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Ancient capitalist proverb: Exploit the prisoners!

| Monday, November 19, 2018

Even if you haven’t been keeping up with the news lately, you are probably aware of the wildfires that currently engulf large swaths of the Californian countryside. Before I get too deep into my opinion, it’s necessary to say that these wildfires are truly tragic. A lot can be said about the impact climate change has had on this unprecedented fire season. I’m not planning on taking that approach in this article as my focus is directed toward an entirely different issue. It is important, nonetheless, to note how devastating this fire season has been in California. Not only has this been the most devastating fire season in property damage and destruction (with entire towns succumbing to the flames and over 125,000 acres engulfed) but also in loss of life (with 76 people dead and over 1000 unaccounted for). This season has also been prolonged further due to California’s current drought and the seasonal change toward fall (with falling leaves supplying the perfect tinder for ignition).

At any rate, beyond the environmental consequences, there is an issue of exploitation at stake in these fires. With such a catastrophe on hand, California has had to invest in a massive mobilization of firefighters from surrounding states. This has proven to be inadequate to fight such large swaths of fires, though. Because of the sheer size of the enflamed area, reserves of firefighters have been activated to keep the blaze contained: reserves found in California’s imprisoned populations.

Prisoners? Yes — prisoners. Select prisoners with expertise training and the same firefighting certifications as their career firefighting peers, strap up their oxygen tanks and step into the haze of California’s wildfires every day. Roughly 1,500 firefighters from California’s prison system are being used to combat these flames.

So, what’s the issue? These prisoners are given expertise training, paid for their services and are given free choice in the manner. They aren’t forced to become firefighters. They aren’t inadequately prepared (at least relative to their career firefighting peers). They are paid for their services. How could this possibly be exploitation, you ask?

Well, there are a few immediately obvious issues with this system, and one that’s a bit more complicated. First, these firefighters are only paid $1 per hour. That’s terrible. For the risks that firefighting entail — serious risk for bodily harm, future lung issues, etc. — $1 per hour is abysmal. Even more so when you compare it to the union average salary in California of $52,000. Over 1,000 inmates have been hospitalized from June 2013 to August 2018 and are four times as likely to experience ‘object-induced injuries’ such as cuts, bruises, dislocations and fractions than their professional firefighting peers. This disparity in firefighter health is only exacerbated when looking at the differences in healthcare available to inmate and professional firefighters. All in all, inmate firefighters get the “short end of the stick” in pay, access to medical resources and (as evidenced by their higher rates of injury) concern from superiors in the field.

On top of this, inmates (upon being paroled or serving their entire sentence) are not allowed to keep their certification. So, while it seems this program intends to train inmates to have practical life skills, these skills proven through certification after certification are deemed inadequate immediately upon leaving California’s prison system.

In combination, what do these two issues tell us about the prison-industrial system? I think it’s quite clear: exploitation.

A prisoner, even if they are given a free choice in the matter, has certain expectations to fill in order to be granted parole. One of the unspoken rules of consideration for parole is prison employment. So, in order to incentivize inmates to work, prison officials offer perks (such as early parole or an extra desert) in exchange for a prisoner’s work.

There is a vested interest in maintaining prison workers given our capitalist system. Since you can pay a prisoner $1 per hour to fight a fire, an inmate firefighter is worth much more in cost effectiveness than a professional firefighter. So, while on one hand prison officials encourage workforce participation through parole rulings with the justification of preparing inmates with life-skills necessary to workforce participation, they aren’t too happy when a prisoner uses those skills outside of the exploitative system of prison labor — that’s why firefighting certifications are useless for an ex-con.

It’s a fine line prison officials walk. They want to encourage prison workforce participation, it’s cost-effective. Since prisoners aren’t really humans and don’t deserve the same rights as any other human being, they can be paid $1 per hour to willingly sacrifice their bodies. But, they can’t allow these skills to impede upon the market outside of correctional facilities. The moment these prisoners become human beings (i.e. worth more than $1 per hour) upon release. Without the ability to use these skills in the marketplace, ex-convicts are more likely to recidivate thus perpetuating the system of cheap labor the prison-industrial complex so desperately needs.

There are three things that need to happen to correct this obviously exploitative system of labor in California:

  1. Give prisoners a real choice by dropping workforce participation from criteria for parole consideration.
  2. Allow ex-prison firefighters to keep their certifications and obtain positions in the professional firefighter community upon release.
  3. Pay all prison workers the money they deserve as human beings contributing to our country’s economy.

Prison labor was first established in the Jim Crow south as a punishment for “vagrancy.” It’s about time we rid our justice system of all remnants of Jim Crow. These three steps would go a long way in stripping our prison system of such a marred history.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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