Modern Slavery: Inmates Fighting Fires

Graphic by Ria Saxena

In the wake of California’s recent wildfires, unexpected heroes united to put out the flames. The state authorized 2,150 inmates to fight fires as part of California’s Conservation Camp program, which employs inmates to assist in federal emergency services. However, the state fails to compensate these unsung heroes for their work since inmates are prohibited from serving in the fire department upon release from prison. As a result, the Conservation Camp program exploits thousands of inmates, using them as slave labor. 

On average, inmate firefighters earn $2.90 to $5.12 a day with the program. This forces prisoners to work dangerous jobs for well below minimum wage with no long term benefits. The state must abolish these inhumane practices and stop treating inmates as free labor.

Every human has the right to be compensated for their work. Incarcerated individuals have the same basic rights as any other U.S. resident. By denying inmates foundational human rights, lawmakers discriminate against them because of superficial characteristics. 

“People in prison just want to be treated like people in prison,” said the managing editor for Prison Legal News Alex Friedmann. “They’re still people.”

Changes to the 13th Amendment could close the loopholes that legalize this form of modern day slavery. According to Loyola University law professor Andrea Armstrong, the 13th Amendment “allows for involuntary servitude where convicted of a crime.” Historically, white plantation owners exploited this by leasing African American convicts for agricultural labor. Through this loophole, farmers benefited from cheap labor and the state made a profit while laborers received little to nothing.

The 13th Amendment loophole undermines the values that form the foundations of American rhetoric. The battles of the civil war, the ideological premise of the Constitution and the very fabric of the U.S. declare freedom as the pinnacle of American society. To allow slavery in any capacity violates the core principles upon which Americans establish their values.

Yes, individuals in prison should repay their debts to society, a goal accomplished through their time served. This goal can further be accomplished by the state through the reintegration of  inmates into the community upon release. This allows released prisoners to begin their lives again and make a positive impact instead of a negative one. Encouraging prisoners to develop new skills and contribute to society benefits all parties involved—inmates can apply their new skills upon release while the community benefits from the inmates’ work. These skills should translate to life outside the prison gates otherwise the developed skills and opportunities are wasted. Not allowing the inmate firefighters to join fire departments upon release weakens the transformative power of the prison system that should equip inmates to reintegrate into their communities. 

Shortsighted legislation that forces inmates to work as temporary laborers abuses the role of prison in society. The implications for life outside prison fail to account for the broader goals of prisons as centers for rehabilitation. Overturning these laws allows prisoners to be treated with human dignity and benefits  society in the long run. 

Ultimately, legislators should alter the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery under all conditions and demanding that everyone receive fair compensation for their labor. Only then will the state stop exploiting inmates for free labor and for life-risking work that only gives them pennies in return.

Emily Anderson is a second year English major. She can be reached at enander1@uci.edu.