Bill would help California's inmate firefighters pursue career after release

"Sorry, the prisoners with jobs."

While the bill's language so far only includes legislative intent, the state's largest firefighter union has come out in opposition to the measure, saying lawbreakers don't meet the high standards that the career demands. [...]

In 2018, there were about 3,700 inmates working at fire camps, including about 2,600 who were fire-line qualified, accounting for more than 20 percent of the roughly 17,000 individuals assigned to the fires in peak season, according to prison and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection records.

The compensation averages only about $2 a day (plus an additional $1 per hour when they're fighting an active fire), but among those in lockup it's a coveted position. It pays more than other inmate jobs, knocks time off sentences and provides participants with a sense of purpose important for rehabilitation, supporters say.

The program has been estimated to save the state $100 million annually. [...]

While inmate hand crews help fight wildland fires, "they are not firefighters," said Wills, the firefighter union spokesman. [...] Wills said there's no worker supply problem in California -- if firefighters are exhausted on the front lines, it's because there aren't enough open positions.

"We have hundreds of men and women who are patiently going through the process of getting the education, taking the tests, doing everything they need to do to become firefighters," he said. "There's no shortage of firefighter candidates."

So let me see if I get this straight:

  • These people aren't qualified to be firefighters;
  • There's no shortage of firefighters;
  • There are plenty of better-qualified people who do want to be firefighters;
  • 20% of CA's front-line forestry firefighters are slaves, because reasons.

Am I missing anything?

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14 Responses:

  1. MattyJ says:

    The firefighter's union is pro-slavery, I guess? I'm betting they're probably happy to have those 2,600 people on the fire lines right about now.

    • Different Jamie says:

      A significant chunk of the country is pro-slavery. Putting aside the obvious cases, ask most anyone about prison work. You'll probably hear about how it is important for rehabilitation, and building legal job skills.

      And then watch them get defensive when you compare it to chattel slavery, and really, really defensive when you point out how prisons and laws that make prisoners changed after 1865.

      • MattyJ says:

        Yeah. It's appalling. I saw this on Last Week Tonight.

        My previous reply is coming off as a little pro-slavery, and less pro-funny-ha-ha. The point was supposed to be that the union (and others) are all like "Yeah, please, more free labor" then the labor enters the actual workforce and they're like "What?!? You want me to pay these people?!"

        Wouldn't more people in the union be good for the union?

        It's all a little gross.

        The article is a little vague but it alludes to firefighters needing a CPR certification, and the laws preventing felons from getting one. Which I'm sure was a deliberate, probably racist, ploy to keep certain people out of certain jobs.

        • thielges says:

          Are felons really prohibited from being CPR certified? I’ve been certified several times and was never asked about my conviction background.

          • MattyJ says:

            D'oh! No, that was a brain typo. I meant EMT. You can't get an EMT certification in California if you're a recent felon. 'Recent' meaning within the last 10 years.

      • Nick Lamb says:

        As I understand it this seems slightly better than chattel slavery, it seems akin to villeinage. The law recognises you as a person and so on, you aren't property, you can't be bought and sold, although on the other hand you're not free to leave. Somebody else has to make sure you're fed, and put a roof over your head, but on the other hand you aren't paid a fair wage for work done.

        England (and lots of Europe) had villeinage. It wasn't really outlawed at the time it just gradually died out as balances of power shifted economically.

        • Thomas Lord says:

          I think it is chattel slavery with a restructured ownership structure.

          "The law recognises you as a person ..."

          You count as a full person for the purpose of determining the number of representatives a state gets in Congress, but generally you are stripped of the franchise. Also, inmate labor is also typically outside the jurisdiction of OSHA.

          "... you can't be bought and sold..."

          The state retains possession of the prisoner but leases out the labor power. As late as the early 20th century, during local labor shortages, you could still find a jurisdiction announcing in the newspaper that they would be rounding up Black men on (bullshit) vagrancy charges to lease them out. (I'd be surprised if this doesn't still happen, though more quietly.)

          The private prison system, today, adds an additional twist: The prisoner belongs to the state but a "master lease" is given to the private prison which can then sublease the prisoner.

          Oh, and participation in prison labor is sometimes alleged to be "voluntary" but the net effect of the rules is that non-participation is punished.

          • NT says:

            Oh, and participation in prison labor is sometimes alleged to be "voluntary" but the net effect of the rules is that non-participation is punished.

            So basically, all incentives are slavery?

      • Elusis says:

        ask most anyone about prison work. You'll probably hear about how it is important for rehabilitation, and building legal job skills.

        Oh, most people won't even bother to couch their prejudices in these thin precepts. They'll gloat about how people who do the crime should do the time, e.g. be enslaved, abused, and even raped. And afterwards they should be sent a bill for the privilege.

  2. margaret says:

    because you never really pay your debt to society. the firemen i know are all right-wing nut jobs - the "obama-in-the-crosshairs, lock-her-up!" kind. it doesn't surprise me one bit that they'd be pro slave-labor, anti put-the-skills-you-learned-to-work. what always kills me is that they don't realize they have such a sweet gig while working for a socialized government/union job. i'd be happy to see some competition for those jobs. what a scam.

  3. Doctor Memory says:

    • Firefighters unions are only fractionally less awful than police unions

    Other than that, nope, you've pretty much got it.

  4. Paul N says:

    "pays more than other inmate jobs" made me think of this Ear Hustle episode, which really drove home the indentured slavery aspect of prison work.

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