California continues to use pseudo slave-labor to fight its wildfires

Note: I also unpack and explain this on Episode #117 of The Breakdown podcast.

Right now, as wildfires rage out of control up and down California, about 20 percent of the people fighting those fires are inmates at California’s jails and prisons. In total, in any given year, nearly 4,000 incarcerated people are doing this work in the Golden State. Low estimates say it saves the state of California nearly $100 million per year that it would otherwise be paying non-incarcerated men and women to be on those frontlines.

This morning, after I posted a video of incarcerated men marching off to fight the fires, several emotional family members of inmates who are doing this work right now reached out to me. Like me, they were conflicted. I’m proud of these men.

They are risking their lives, sometimes working around the clock for weeks, months even, to save lives, land, and property. They are no less heroic because they one day committed a crime. Nearly 2,600 inmates are fire-line certified to do the hardest, most dangerous work a firefighter could ever do and they are putting themselves in harm’s way for the greater good.

But let’s be clear, this is a scam on several levels. Let me unpack and explain what I mean.

  • Most of these men are doing the work because it helps knock time off of their already excessive sentences. Most incarcerated people would do damn near anything to have less time, leveraging that reality against them is awful.

  • This is a money-making venture for California. It’s why it has survived both Democratic and Republican administrations dating all the way back to the 1940s. These men should be paid the state-mandated minimum wage. I reject the notion that being incarcerated means wage laws no longer apply.

  • When these men finish their prison sentences, in spite of all of their training and experience, they are virtually banned from ever becoming firefighters.

Lots of plantation-era justifications are often uttered in defense of this program – particularly something along the lines of, “These men love getting out of the prison and out into nature.” Of course they do! Prisons are violent, restrictive, oppressive hellholes.

Literal slave-masters of yesteryear often gave the same justifications for men and women they allowed to run errands or travel and preach outside of the confines of the plantation. When you enslave or imprison people, they’ll take any chance they can to get away from the worst sting of the oppression.

What can be done about this

Legislation is being proposed right now in California to at least begin opening the door for these firefighters to do the work after they are released, but guess who’s opposing it? The largest firefighter union in the state. That union, California Professional Firefighters, has a long, ugly history of racism and bigotry. Black firefighters have had to create their own separate union in great part because of racism within the ranks.

But here’s the deal – California now has a Democratic majority in their legislature. They have a Democratic Governor They could end this right away. The legislation they’ve proposed is just a start, which is better than nothing, but just barely.

If you’d like to let California Governor Gavin Newsom know how you feel about this, please email and call him directly using this form, ok? Be respectful, but be clear that this is a chance for him to lead on the issue of reform. I know Governor Newsom personally and know that he cares about serious prison reform, but he needs to hear from all of us on this.

After you reach out, email me and let me know how it goes @ shaun@thenorthstar.com ok? (Note: I also unpack and explain this on Episode #117 of The Breakdown podcast.) Right now, as wildfires rage out of control up and down California, about 20 percent of the people fighting those fires are inmates at California’s jails and prisons. In total, in any given year, nearly 4,000 incarcerated people are doing this work in the Golden State. Low estimates say it saves the state of California nearly $100 million per year that it would otherwise be paying non-incarcerated men and women to be on those frontlines.

This morning, after I posted a video of incarcerated men marching off to fight the fires, several emotional family members of inmates who are doing this work right now reached out to me. Like me, they were conflicted. I’m proud of these men. They are risking their lives, sometimes working around the clock for weeks, months even, to save lives, land, and property. They are no less heroic because they one day committed a crime. Nearly 2,600 inmates are fire-line certified to do the hardest, most dangerous work a firefighter could ever do and they are putting themselves in harm’s way for the greater good.

But let’s be clear, this is a scam on several levels. Let me unpack and explain what I mean.

  • Most of these men are doing the work because it helps knock time off of their already excessive sentences. Most incarcerated people would do damn near anything to have less time, leveraging that reality against them is awful.

  • This is a money-making venture for California. It’s why it has survived both Democratic and Republican administrations dating all the way back to the 1940s. These men should be paid the state-mandated minimum wage. I reject the notion that being incarcerated means wage laws no longer apply.

  • When these men finish their prison sentences, in spite of all of their training and experience, they are virtually banned from ever becoming firefighters.

Lots of plantation-era justifications are often uttered in defense of this program – particularly something along the lines of, “These men love getting out of the prison and out into nature.” Of course they do! Prisons are violent, restrictive, oppressive hellholes. Literal slave-masters of yesteryear often gave the same justifications for men and women they allowed to run errands or travel and preach outside of the confines of the plantation. When you enslave or imprison people, they’ll take any chance they can to get away from the worst sting of the oppression. What can be done about this

Legislation is being proposed right now in California to at least begin opening the door for these firefighters to do the work after they are released, but guess who’s opposing it? The largest firefighter union in the state. That union, California Professional Firefighters, has a long, ugly history of racism and bigotry. Black firefighters have had to create their own separate union in great part because of racism within the ranks.

But here’s the deal – California now has a Democratic majority in their legislature. They have a Democratic Governor They could end this right away. The legislation they’ve proposed is just a start, which is better than nothing, but just barely.

If you’d like to let California Governor Gavin Newsom know how you feel about this, please email and call him directly using this form, ok? Be respectful, but be clear that this is a chance for him to lead on the issue of reform. I know Governor Newsom personally and know that he cares about serious prison reform, but he needs to hear from all of us on this.

After you reach out, email me and let me know how it goes @ shaun@thenorthstar.com ok?