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Inmates Being Paid $1/Hour to Fight Wildfires Under Guise of “Conservation Camp”

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On her blog, Rania Khalek details how prisoners are being used to fight fires throughout the West while being paid $1 or less per hour.  Climate change has created increased demand for life-threatening work to contain wildfires and a sad loophole in the constitution allows this forced servitude:

Inmates in California and Nevada are being paid $1 an hour to fight the wildfires. That’s twice as much as prisoners serving time at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, who made 50 cents an hour fighting 13 forest fires in Arizona last year.Austerity has reduced federal firefighting expenditures by 40 percent since the 1980s, forcing budget strapped state and local agencies to pick up the slack. So they’ve turned to prison labor, which is dirt cheap thanks to a loophole in the 13th amendment, which states:

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.

In California, the inmates are part of a “conservation camp” which is sold as a rehabilitation program.  In reality they are being forced into extreme situations with little fiscal reward.

The California Department of Corrections publicizes its Conservation Camp—which trains prisoners to respond to fires, floods and earthquakes—as a “rehabilitation program” that has the added benefit of saving the state $80 million a year. What isn’t mentioned is the back-breaking labor that goes unpaid to make those savings happen.

“The inmates often labor in 90-degree heat; they carry packs that often weigh 50 pounds or more and face not only fire but also rattlesnakes, bees, rough terrain and falling debris,” reports Al Jazeera America, adding that inmates have died as a result:

In 2012 a 22-year-old Airway Heights crew member [at Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane, Washington] was killed only a few months before his release date, electrocuted while felling trees near a power line. Fatalities are rare when inmates are put on the front line of firefighting, but programs in other states have, likewise, had instances of injury and death…For their work, Airway Heights crew members earn 62 cents an hour. For overtime hours, it’s 92 cents.

Most of the media coverage surrounding the rising use of inmate labor to fight wildfires has painted the program as popular among prisoners who are happy to be outside performing a job they can be proud of instead of locked in a cage with nothing to pass the time.

Prison is not a point blank negative. Performing meaningful tasks can be a valuable, helpful way for many inmates to participate in society.  But dangerous, low-paying, exploitative jobs are unacceptable, full stop. Prisoner safety and rehabilitation should not be pitted against one another.  


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