By Huiying B Chan / Daily Kos
Wildfires continue to ravage California. Instead of hiring firefighters to put out the fires, the government is turning to incarcerated people for labor. More than 3,400 prisoners risk their lives every day to tackle the wildfires. While the average California firefighter earns $74,000 plus benefits annually, imprisoned people are paid as little as $2 a day. By relying on prison labor, California avoids spending $80 to $100 million a year.
I first learned about the exploitation of imprisoned laborers during the snowpocalypse that hit Boston in 2015. Imprisoned workers were paid 20 cents an hour for shoveling the city in the freezing cold that no one else wanted to venture out and brave. It dawned on me then that prison wasn’t just about gruesome punishment: it’s about profit. And prison labor is responsible for more of this country’s everyday products and services than is let on.
Today, the United States holds 5 percent of the world’s population and incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. More than 2 million people are separated from their families, deprived of basic human rights, abused, and left to suffer in cages. Incarceration has increased by 500 percent in the last 40 years, even though crime rates have decreased. More than one-half of all federal prisoners are incarcerated for a nonviolent drug offense.
Here’s how it works: Black communities, in particular, are over-policed and targeted, especially for drugs—even though they are not more likely than white people to use or sell them. The private prison industry fills cages with black and brown people, puts them to (nearly unpaid) work, and profits billions.
The truth is the U.S. relies on mass incarceration to keep our economy thriving. Prisoners are paid as little as 8 cents an hour. Because imprisoned people are not considered employees, they are not protected under any laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act. Some states, including Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia, force prisoners to work and do not pay them anything. This is legalized modern-day slavery.
Our very Constitution allows for all of this happen. Slavery was abolished in 1865, except for people convicted of crimes. Under the 13th amendment, enslaving people is still legal. It’s written loud and clear:
“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.”
Upon release, the imprisoned California heroes cannot even become paid firefighters. After all of their time battling the fires on close to no pay, instead of being recognized as the heroes they are, they are forced to toil in rampant unemployment and economic instability. People are barred from qualifying for many jobs because of their criminal record long after they’ve served their time. Formerly incarcerated firefighters cannot get an EMT license, which is critical to be formally hired as a firefighter after release. Because of sanctioned employment discrimination, their on-the-ground work experience is deemed moot.
Prisoners have been and continue to rise up and organize. The largest prison strike in history is happening right now. In more than 17 states, prisoners are holding sit-ins, hunger strikes, and work strikes to call for an end to legalized slavery. Their demands include outlawing work without pay and a rollback of repressive prison policies, such as denying prisoners the ability to file lawsuits for human rights violations, life without parole, any form of meaningful rehabilitation, and stripping them of their right to vote. Above all, they are asking to have their humanity recognized.
Anti-shackling organizers continue to fight for the freedom of formerly and currently incarcerated people. A world without cages is possible. There was a time when U.S. prison use was at a low and the idea of prisons fading out was a real possibility. Permanently ending mass incarceration and creating alternative restorative and transformative justice models in this country are long overdue.
For more information on the prison strike and how to get involved, follow the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee for updates.