Prisoners Are Getting Paid $1.45 a Day to Fight the California Wildfires

As firefighters in California battle the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history, they are joined by unlikely allies against the blaze. About 200 prisoners in California’s Conservation Camp program are fighting the fires alongside civilian employees, earning just $1.45 a day for their work. Their pay as workers is a fraction of minimum wage. The hazard to their lives is real, as evidenced by a death toll that has climbed steadily.

The prisoners battling the fires in California deserve real wages. And their rights as workers lead us to larger issues of prison labor, fires or not.

I’m often asked what the ACLU thinks about this and other prison work programs. The answer isn’t black or white. Most prisoners want to work, and jobs for prisoners can be a very positive thing.  A job can provide an escape from the crushing monotony of prison life – a chance to do something productive, earn a little money, and maybe even learn some skills that are useful in and of themselves and useful when reentering society. And as we know, 97 percent of people in prison will return to their communities.

That said, given the vast power inequality between prisoners and their employers, there is also a persistent and real potential for exploitation and abuse. 

Prisoners are excluded from the legal protections enjoyed by all other workers. They’re not allowed to unionize. They’re not covered by minimum wage laws, and the paltry wages they do earn can be seized by the prison. If they’re injured or killed on the job, they’re not covered by workers’ compensation, and their ability to recover damages in court is severely limited. All of these factors combine to make prisoners a uniquely vulnerable workforce.

It’s true that no California prisoners are forced to fight fires; prisoners volunteer for the assignment. But prison is an inherently coercive environment; there’s very little that is truly voluntary. So it’s critically important to ensure that prisoners who choose to work are making a free and uncoerced choice, and a choice that’s fully informed about the risks and dangers of the work they’re agreeing to do.

And fighting wildfires is extraordinarily dangerous work. 

At least two prisoner firefighters died in work-related accidents in California last year alone. In 1990, an entire prisoner fire crew of six died on a single day in Arizona. Beyond these more immediate dangers, firefighters face an increased risk of respiratory disease, cancer, and other illnesses. 

Prison labor also raises additional concerns beyond prisoner health and safety. Employers will naturally be attracted by the prospect of a uniquely docile, powerless, and literally captive labor force. The prison labor force could also undercut workers who are not incarcerated. Without proper oversight, in a country with 2.3 million prisoners, there’s a danger that prison labor could displace the position of free workers and undermine workers’ rights writ large.

The state of California has come to rely on prison labor to such a degree that it has affected state policy.

In 2014 the California prison system was ordered by a federal court to grant early release credits to minimum security prisoners to comply with a population cap imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state’s lawyers argued against such early releases on the ground that they would “severely impact fire camp participation.” In other words, the state argued that people should be kept in prison not because they were dangerous, but so that they could continue doing work that would otherwise have to be done by public employees. 

Although the court rejected those arguments and then-Attorney General Kamala Harris later disavowed them, the incident shows how the temptation to exploit prison labor can distort our criminal justice system. We should use incarceration as a last resort to protect public safety — not to create or maintain a pool of cheap labor for the government. 

The best way to protect prisoner workers is to treat them as much as possible like non-incarcerated employees. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be paid a real wage, protected by occupational health and safety laws, and compensated for injuries on the job. The hundreds of prisoners risking their lives on the firelines deserve nothing less.

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Anonymous

Healthcare in prison is a joke.

Anonymous

Why are they prisoners???

Anonymous

"But prison is an inherently coercive environment; there’s very little that is truly voluntary." No doi. It's prison not summer camp.

Anonymous

As someone who has been in prison and worked for $0.25 per hour, I understand the things being said. I understand that people have strong views on all sides of this argument, but let me address a few of them. I was incarcerated in Minnesota, so I’ll address my comments accordingly. First, Minnesota prisons have mandatory work assignments. As an inmate, you have no choice in whether you work (and in some cases, where you work). Refusing to work in Minnesota prisons results in disciplinary action (sometimes including extended prison sentences). Minnesota has a number of different pay rates depending on the work you do, but all jobs start at $0.25 or $0.50 per hour. Then, the prison takes half of that from anyone who has fines, restitution, or other obligations. If you don’t owe any of these, they take 5% of your wages for an Aid to Victims fund that no one (including the Commissioner’s Office) can explain where the money actually goes. Next, you spend that money at a canteen owned by MinnCor Industries (which also employs prisoners). The prices on everything are inflated. Plus, most of the products sold are purchased from a company owned by prison guards in other states. It is a corrupt system all around. Because of the wages and prices of goods in the canteen, it is generally not possible for an inmate to buy hygiene supplies, envelopes, and a single phone call for the month. Imagine that...working 40 hours or more each month and not being able to call or write to your family or friends because you also needed to brush your teeth.

Anonymous

I don't understand why a criminal/prisoner should be treated as well as a non-criminal. Don't you thing that removed the incentive of being a good citizen? I mean, if prison didn't suck then there's no reason to not commit crimes. Three squares a day, cable TV, running water, and a decent paying job doesn't sound very tough to me. Why should a criminal have the same things as a non criminal? Where's the punishment for committing a crime?

Anonymous

You are right, something should be done about that corruption, it’s embarrasing when our government officials are corrupt, it feels like our service members are fighting for corruption instead of freedom. But along with the 90% tax at the end of the day, why should we pay more? It’s hard enough for us, why make it easier on someone who committed a crime vs a law abiding citizen?
Tbh if the prison systems are getting more than functional supplies, they are already screwing prisoners. Get the basics, they work fine and are MUCH cheaper.

Anonymous

Amen, buddy. Well said.

Anonymous

Why isnt it mentuoned that prisoners live on paid tax dollars? If you invlide that in their wage they are making far more than the firemen that fight these fires?!

Anonymous

Ok. Don’t pay them a fair wage, kill them off in the fires, then see how much it costs the state when all the other prisoners say, “I’m not gonna do that.” What would happen if, say, California prisoners went on strike. Imagine the economic impact on the state budget. Prisoners run the prison. They are the kitchen workers, the librarians, the janitors, and they make the license plates. Now, without them, the state gets to pay $15 per hour for those kitchen workers, librarians, janitors, and license plate makers...$15+ per hour plus FULL BENEFITS! But, it’s not cost effective to pay these prisoners say $5 an hour? That seems more reasonable than $1.45 per day...and, it might keep them from quitting.

Anonymous

Hmm I should now commit crimes just so I can get free room, food, job training, and get paid fighting fires! This is what most people will do if liberals were to get prisoner workers paid with benefits.

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