Prison reform has been a huge concern over the past few years, and issues ranging from early release programs to privately-owned prisons have consistently been at the forefront of the national news. In a surprising show of honesty, though, California has just admitted that it doesn’t want to release non-violent low-level offenders early because it would cut into their “slave” labor.
Dwindling California Prison Population Cutting Into Cheap Labor
After a decade of court orders demanding that California fix issues with its prison system, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the state’s overcrowding issue was unconstitutional and that they had to reduce their prison population. These efforts have been ongoing since then, but recent developments have brought the issue of cheap labor to light.
New court orders have stated that California must expand current parole programs that will result in non-violent and low-level offenders serving shorter sentences. The state had objections, and in one of its arguments, a program which has state prisoners fight wildfires was brought up:
Strict criteria limiting fire camp eligibility to low-level, non-violent offenders are necessary because fire camp participants are housed in non-secure facilities and are in contact with members of the public in their role as firefighters.
Did you make the connection there? California uses non-violent and low-level offenders to fight wildfires. New judicial requirements would release non-violent and low-level offenders early, so California is objecting. That’s right, the state wants to keep non-dangerous people in prison just so it can have them fight fires. During the recent Bully Fire, nearly half of all firefighters trying to contain the blaze were inmates.
California wants its cake AND wants to eat it too.
California is saving around $1 billion by using inmate labor to fight wildfires. A huge reason behind this savings is the fact that inmates are only paid $2 a day for their services. Don’t worry, though, because this pay is only when they’re not fighting fires. When they actually are risking their lives, they get a whole $1 an hour. This at one point led nearly one-fourth of prison firefighters to compare their work to slavery.
Understanding the need for prisoners on wildfire detail, the courts caved a little and decided that California only had to expand their early release program for inmates who would not be allowed to work in the fire camp. Even so, the state had an argument against this:
Even the extension of 2-for-1 credits solely to MSF [Minimum Support Facility] inmates who are fire camp ineligible would impact fire camps… [The state would be] forced to draw down its fire camp population to fill these vital MSF positions.”
Their argument is that even allowing those who can’t work at fire camps to be released early would still have a detrimental effect on the camp itself. All this because those who were eligible to fight wildfires may then have to get involved in other inmate work duties.
With a prison system that’s dependent on keeping people incarcerated to perform work as menial as mopping floors or as dangerous as fighting wildfires, are we really surprised that America has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world?