A story circled my social media a few weeks ago, talking about the heroic women who fight wildfires in California. The New York Times published an article titled “The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires” by Jaime Lowe and my Facebook friends were all loving it. The subtitle reads, “By choice, for less than $2 an hour, the female inmate firefighters of California work their bodies to the breaking point. Sometimes they even risk their lives.”
Something about this struck me as odd. Two dollars an hour is far below the federal minimum wage, and as a strong proponent of the “Fight for 15” movement to raise the federal minimum to $15, the idea angered me. Often we hear of prisoners mistreated by the system in one way or another. One side of the narrative defends the actions of the prison system and overseers, and the other side defends the victims’ human rights. Despite the small wages, I was happy they were paid at all. I counted it as a small victory and went digging.
The New York Times article explains the prisoners’ acceptance to the program and the training they undergo. It leaves much to be desired in terms of the safety of the people involved and the situations they’re placed in. “…Once they are accepted into a camp, the training they receive, which often lasts as little as three weeks, is significantly less than the three-year apprenticeship that full-time civilian firefighters get,” writes Lowe, highlighting the problems of the seemingly wholesome program.
California’s wildfire fighters directly connect to the exploitation of prison labor throughout the country. The Economist wrote an article about the multibillion-dollar prison labor industry this past March, which cited federal exploitation of prison labor as follows: “…the Bureau of Prisons operates a programme known as Federal Prison Industries that pays inmates roughly $0.90 an hour to produce everything from mattresses, spectacles, road signs and body armour for other government agencies, earning $500m in sales in fiscal 2016.” More specifically, California’s female firefighters are part of the state’s $232 million profits from the prison system for 2017.
Businesses such as McDonald’s, Walmart and Whole Foods profit from cheap prison labor, according to Zahrah Abdulrauf’s “50 Companies Supporting Modern American Slavery.” Often, the low prices these companies offer are cultivated on the backs of American inmates. By relying on the prison system, companies can also slap “Made in the USA” stickers on their merchandise and entice more “ethical” consumers.
In our rush to celebrate the bravery and skill of those women in California, we failed to recognize the bigger issues at hand. These firefighters are risking their lives and deserve pay that reflects that. Inmates do not sacrifice their human rights when they are given a sentence. If any branch of government or company wants to use their labor for gain, the workers need to be paid a living wage.
On top of this, imagine the boon of having a few years’ worth of wages saved after a few years of hard work while serving a sentence. The transition will already be difficult enough — money and job experience will go a long way for released inmates. We need to fight for our prisoners, and demand equal treatment and equal rights for all.