Prisoners Risk Their Lives Fighting California Wildfires for $2 a Day

by on August 28, 2018 · 4 comments

in California

Credit: Jeff Head / Flickr

By Huiying B Chan / Daily Kos

Wildfires continue to ravage California. Instead of hiring firefighters to put out the fires, the government is turning to incarcerated people for labor. More than 3,400 prisoners risk their lives every day to tackle the wildfires. While the average California firefighter earns $74,000 plus benefits annually, imprisoned people are paid as little as $2 a day. By relying on prison labor, California avoids spending $80 to $100 million a year.

I first learned about the exploitation of imprisoned laborers during the snowpocalypse that hit Boston in 2015. Imprisoned workers were paid 20 cents an hour for shoveling the city in the freezing cold that no one else wanted to venture out and brave. It dawned on me then that prison wasn’t just about gruesome punishment: it’s about profit. And prison labor is responsible for more of this country’s everyday products and services than is let on.

Today, the United States holds 5 percent of the world’s population and incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. More than 2 million people are separated from their families, deprived of basic human rights, abused, and left to suffer in cages. Incarceration has increased by 500 percent in the last 40 years, even though crime rates have decreased. More than one-half of all federal prisoners are incarcerated for a nonviolent drug offense.

Here’s how it works: Black communities, in particular, are over-policed and targeted, especially for drugs—even though they are not more likely than white people to use or sell them. The private prison industry fills cages with black and brown people, puts them to (nearly unpaid) work, and profits billions.

The truth is the U.S. relies on mass incarceration to keep our economy thriving. Prisoners are paid as little as 8 cents an hour. Because imprisoned people are not considered employees, they are not protected under any laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act. Some states, including Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia, force prisoners to work and do not pay them anything. This is legalized modern-day slavery.

Our very Constitution allows for all of this happen. Slavery was abolished in 1865, except for people convicted of crimes. Under the 13th amendment, enslaving people is still legal. It’s written loud and clear:

“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.”

Upon release, the imprisoned California heroes cannot even become paid firefighters. After all of their time battling the fires on close to no pay, instead of being recognized as the heroes they are, they are forced to toil in rampant unemployment and economic instability. People are barred from qualifying for many jobs because of their criminal record long after they’ve served their time. Formerly incarcerated firefighters cannot get an EMT license, which is critical to be formally hired as a firefighter after release. Because of sanctioned employment discrimination, their on-the-ground work experience is deemed moot.

Prisoners have been and continue to rise up and organize. The largest prison strike in history is happening right now. In more than 17 states, prisoners are holding sit-ins, hunger strikes, and work strikes to call for an end to legalized slavery. Their demands include outlawing work without pay and a rollback of repressive prison policies, such as denying prisoners the ability to file lawsuits for human rights violations, life without parole, any form of meaningful rehabilitation, and stripping them of their right to vote. Above all, they are asking to have their humanity recognized.

Anti-shackling organizers continue to fight for the freedom of formerly and currently incarcerated people. A world without cages is possible. There was a time when U.S. prison use was at a low and the idea of prisons fading out was a real possibility. Permanently ending mass incarceration and creating alternative restorative and transformative justice models in this country are long overdue.

Poster designed by Melanie Cervantes, Xicanx artist and cultural worker and co-founder of Dignidad Rebelde


For more information on the prison strike and how to get involved, follow the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee for updates.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Oldob August 28, 2018 at 3:45 pm

Wow, a paradox here, an absurdity there. This article got off to a great start referencing the exploitation of the prisoners. Isn’t that exactly what criminals do to the rest of us; exploit us? What’s wrong with turning the tables? This was at least something that I could stomach. I had to stop reading when I saw the reference to the “incarcerated hero’s.” Give me a break. There is nothing heroic about most of these people. And, imprisoning people for being criminals is not something of which to be ashamed.


Frank Gormlie August 28, 2018 at 4:11 pm

Doesn’t sound like you’re a Christian.

Placing anybody in the path of onrushing giant flames for $2 an hour is … well, criminal.

Actually, when I was a criminal on a labor camp in east county, I fought several fires for $1.50 an hour back in the early 70s. On one occasion several of my co-worker criminals (many were in for drug crimes) came into extreme danger as falling redwoods nearly took them out – for good. It was a huge fire on top of a mountain in Riverside Co.

If any of them had been killed, wouldn’t that be an execution, you know, the state placed them there, and killed them. For petty crimes.

Get a heart Oldob.


Jan Michael Sauer August 28, 2018 at 11:56 pm

The 13th Amendment was and is a terrible mistake. The Southern (and Northern) states to this day use it to keep (mainly) people of color in line. The Amendment was a concession to the South; a way to always guarantee a healthy slave labor force. Today’s slave labor camps are in many ways worse than they were in the 1800s. The exception to the 13th Amendment needs to be removed. Slavery is WRONG (.)


sealintheSelkirks September 6, 2018 at 1:53 pm

Oldob Quotes:

“Isn’t that exactly what criminals do to the rest of us; exploit us?”

“And, imprisoning people for being criminals is not something of which to be ashamed.”

Did you not read the part of the article that said over 50% of the caged are in for non-violent drug crimes? Drug addiction is a medical problem not a criminal one unless SOMEBODY profits by locking people up and exploiting them. One answer would be to at least do what Portugal did years ago and dump all the money they were wasting on cops and prisons into effective free rehab for all.

Bet you haven’t even heard about the incredible changes since Portugal decriminalized everything, eh?

Oh wait, in this country rehab makes piles of money just like prisons…for somebody. Nobody who has addiction problems can even afford it. More money on the corporate quarterly profit statement distributed to the wealthy shareholders! How…american.

Every day I see people lining up in their cars to buy speed at the local drive-up coffee shacks or waiting to buy fancy overpriced cups of speed made by underpaid ‘baristas’ or guzzling speed being sold at the local fast food joints in huge oversized ‘soft drink’ cups while feeding it to their young children to addict them to the drug but that’s okay. Just making money with no ethical base other than profit.

Big sigh.

The US has dropped recently to about 4.5% of the world population but still with 25% of the prisoners. Prisoners with no chance to change their lives during their incarceration nor after because you have the mark of the beast on your forehead forever.

This country was founded by white male slave owners. It was built on genocide of the people that lived here for ten thousand years and the massive work of slaves that took a Civil War to sort of…slow it down until the wealthy figured out how to Jim Crow it back into the financial profit margins. When that scam fell apart (due to Unionization) they moved the jobs overseas to new slave factories and…gave the now-useless skilled work force Corporate owned & distributed opiods to ease the pain. More profit to be made.

Doesn’t anybody read actual history?



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