How California Fires are Highlighting the Ethicality of Prison Labor


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge of virus outbreaks in prisons around the nation, California Governor Gavin Newsom initiated an early release program to attempt to alleviate the overcrowded conditions and minimize the number of deaths among inmates. Around 17,600 inmates in California have been released early under the program since it started in April. Now, in the midst of a record-breaking fire season, California’s dependence on prison labor is more apparent than ever before.

As fires ravish across the state, California is experiencing a lack of firefighters, which can be directly attributed to the release of prison labor that would otherwise be used to fight these fires. Attention has now been brought to the strong reliance that California, and the United States, has on prison labor and raised questions about the ethicality of using prison labor in the first place.

The use of prison labor is not new. Under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished except “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. This clause in the amendment has allowed for the use of prison labor for not only for fighting fires, but also for the manufacturing of products for big-name companies, and as manual labor in a number of industries.

Furthermore, inmates who work to fight fires are required to go through the same training as California’s seasonal firefighters. However, they are paid $1 an hour plus $2 a day for the very dangerous, and potentially deadly work. In comparison, theCalifornia minimum wage ranges from $12 to up to $16.84 in some areas of the state. The inmates are not only risking their lives but also only receiving a very small fraction of the lowest compensation that companies can legally pay workers in California. While these people have a criminal record, they are still people, raising ethical concerns about prison labor laws and the infringement on human rights they cause.

Due to the attention recently brought on the subject, last week a new bill was passed allowing former inmates to become firefighters. Previously, while these individuals had to serve as firefighters as inmates, once they left prison, they could not apply to be firefighters after their release due to their criminal record. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it doesn’t address the concerns about the ethicality of using prison labor for fighting fires in the first place. It is clear that prison labor laws are inhumane and unethical, and the United States must reevaluate the practice.