Despite Orders to Free Prisoners, Officials Cling to Cheap Inmate Firefighters

State law means they should go free, but prosecutors fret publicly about who will put out the state's fires if not for cheap prison labor.

California Department of Corrections inmate fire crews from Delta Conservation Camp work with Cal Fire to remove ground fuels and small trees to help reduce the spread of flames in the event of a wildfire on May 12 in Yountville, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Nov 20, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As California’s historic drought conditions coincide with the success of criminal justice reform initiatives, some state officials look to be in open panic. Afraid of losing the prisoners who have become crucial in fights against rampant wildfires, attorneys from Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office recently argued that a new early-parole program for nonviolent offenders would chip into their cherished labor pool.

Simply put, state prosecutors said California couldn't release prisoners who have paid their debt to society because society needs their poorly paid work. Harris has since distanced herself from the comments made by her underlings, telling Buzzfeed she is “very troubled” by them.

The comments from Harris’ office are an affirmation of intentions foreseen by the prisoners’ rights community, said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

“We’ve long suspected and feared that employers, including the state, will naturally be interested by the prospect of a docile, powerless, and literally captive labor force,” said Fathi. “Unions have warned for years that prison labor undercuts the bargaining power of free workers, and it looks like in California at least, their fears are justified.”

According to Fathi, the mismatched power dynamic between prison workers and their employers sets up a negative incentive for the government to keep people in prison. With 2.3 million Americans behind bars across the country, Fathi notes, “this is not a trivial part of the labor force.”

But the comments from the attorney general’s office are the most explicit admission of this that Fathi has witnessed.

“To some extent you’ve got to congratulate them on their honesty about what it is that we are really doing in California prisons, which is benefitting from people’s very cheap labor,” said Hadar Aviram, a lawyer and criminologist at UC Hastings College of the Law, in a phone interview. Aviram's book about how Recession-era politics have transformed American criminal punishment is due out in January 2015.

Last week’s court order requiring the California's corrections officials to finally implement an early-release parole program for nonviolent, second-strike offenders is just the latest in the ongoing saga spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision declaring California’s overcrowded prisons in violation of the constitution. Combined with the passage of ballot measure Proposition 47 earlier this month, which reclassified six petty drug and theft crimes to misdemeanors and gives current prisoners the chance to have their felony charges reduced, it appears the state’s nonviolent prison population is officially going to shrink.

The state's troubling comments reveal a lot about California's and other states’ controversial reliance on prison labor, not just for maintaining and operating the prisons themselves, but also the numerous demands from outside prison walls to meet public safety and infrastructure needs. Prisoners weld public water tanks, build furniture for state university dorms, and perhaps most dangerously, fight fires that tear through thousands of acres of the state’s wildlands. As the state dips into its emergency fund to cover the costs, it is unsurprising that the vulnerability of a program that saves the state millions by paying prisoners only $2 a day to fight fires might come into question.

This happens to be the same segment of the prison population from which the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection plucks the more than 4,400 prisoners it relies on to fight the growing number of wildfires. Violent offenders are ineligible to beat back overgrown brush on steep and difficult terrain for the Cal Fire program, which trains prisoners to do the hard labor necessary to keep the record number of fires at bay. This year, the state has recorded over 1,000 more fires than the five-year average, and while the official “fire season” has ended and the state has already blown through its entire yearly budget allocated for fire-fighting, the fires themselves have not let up.

Marxist criminologists have long espoused the theory that prisons flourish in direct response to a society’s need for cheap labor, Aviram noted, but this perspective has appeared subversive or radical to the mainstream criminology community.

“We have gotten so used to just indiscriminately warehousing people that the thought of releasing more people is just very difficult for the state to take,” said Aviram, adding that the state’s comments are not a reflection of a lack of options, but of priorities. “If they want to provide people with living wages and not rely on prison labor, there are ways to do it and there are ways to save money.”

The release of many geriatric and ill prisoners, whose health care costs the state tens of thousands each year, is just one example of another way the state could save money. Of course, this approach would also require the state to acclimate to the idea of dramatically reducing its prison population—an adjustment that is clearly testing the attorneys in Harris’ office.

“It is fundamentally wrong to argue that people should be kept in prison not because they’re dangerous, but to continue to provide cheap labor,” said Fathi. “The purpose of incarceration is to protect public safety, not to create and maintain a captive labor force for the government.”

Regardless of the troubling sentiment spouted by Harris’ team, California voters and the court have made their priorities clear. Reducing the state’s prison population is going to happen, regardless of the discomfort it might cause those who benefit from the cash saved in the state’s coffers by underpaying prison laborers.