a Pulaski, a tool that is half axe, half adze
November 1, 2014 9:23 PM   Subscribe

About half of the people fighting wildland fires on the ground for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) are incarcerated: over 4,400 prisoners, housed at 42 inmate fire camps, including three for women. Together, says Capt. Jorge Santana, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) liaison who supervises the camps, they save the state over $1 billion a year. This year, California has had over 5,300 wildfires, which is about 700 more than had occurred by this time in 2013, and a thousand more than the five-year average. Now, as the West is coming to the end of one of the driest, hottest years in recorded history, the work of inmate firefighters has become essential to California’s financial and environmental health. (SLBuzzfeedNews)
posted by Rustic Etruscan (28 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
So you're saying if I go to jail I can be a firefighter?
posted by hermanubis at 9:27 PM on November 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Thank you. I didn't know this.
posted by SPrintF at 9:32 PM on November 1, 2014


So you're saying if I go to jail I can be a firefighter?

Only if you're not convicted of arson.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:50 PM on November 1, 2014


“Prison labor has been most successful in areas where the risk of dying or being very seriously injured is pretty high,” said W. David Ball, an assistant professor in criminal justice at the Santa Clara University School of Law. After all, he says, convicted criminals have lost the right to manage their own lives, to a certain extent; when Congress passed the 13th Amendment in 1865, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, they made sure to include the following phrase: “except as a punishment for crime.”
This makes me feel ill. Asking people with so little power and in such poor conditions to "volunteer" to go into dangerous situations -- like a raging fire! -- is coercion.
posted by jaguar at 9:58 PM on November 1, 2014 [22 favorites]


I don't know which part is better; the part where it ruins a job that pays well and is otherwise noble and well-regarded, or the part when it risks of lives of people who don't have any option. I guess the icing on the cake is where it gives the people in charge an excuse to stop worrying about how dangerous the job is or trying to make it safer.

Of course this shouldn't be allowed.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:09 PM on November 1, 2014 [33 favorites]


This makes me feel ill. Asking people with so little power and in such poor conditions to "volunteer" to go into dangerous situations -- like a raging fire! -- is coercion.

I've fought forest fires, and really, the main danger is from implements and terrain. Hotshot crews are sent to fight fires directly, because they have the most training and expertise. In my experience, it's pretty rare for a non-hotshot or regular crew to actually fight the fire itself. They'll be spent on support tasks. Hand crews such as these will work alongside dozers clearing firelines, or walking burned out areas digging up stumps and roots to keep the fire from springing back up, boring, filthy, nasty work.

I saw lots of twisted ankles and knees. One guy nearly severed a finger opening a can of Beenie Weenies - he got a helicopter ride to the nearest hospital.

I had a tree fall on me. One of the the things that can happen is that the fire will burn up a tree until it finds a weak spot in the bark, maybe where another limb has rubbed it off. For most fires, the bark will protect the tree, unless it is damaged or weak somehow. There, the fire will find purchase and burn through the tree, and then the wind will knock it over and it will fall to the ground - usually silently - and kill you. The one that fell on me was smallish, and got caught up on the way down. Even at that, two feet to the left, and I would have been impaled.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:13 PM on November 1, 2014 [12 favorites]


The guy interviewed nearly cut his leg with a chainsaw. TWICE. They talk about being right up against the flames. These are not jobs that someone should be conscripted into, especially in a situation where the power dynamic is that society is not likely to protest the prisoner's death or injury.
posted by jaguar at 10:16 PM on November 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Theyre not conscripted. This is a terrible article in a lot of ways. Fire camp is competitive and popular amongst inmates because, as the subject says, it beats sitting in jail and none of the gang issues are tolerated.

The subject of this article isn't very sympathetic admittedly (going to be a millionaire? Really? At 40, with no education or skills?) but he's only one person. I think a better article would have talked to multiple inmates, some younger and some with different plans after jail.
posted by fshgrl at 10:30 PM on November 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's not exactly like they have much free choice, fshgrl.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:34 PM on November 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


They have to apply though. It's not like calfire comes and yanks them out of their cells. And apparently people want it enough to lie on their applications.
posted by fshgrl at 10:36 PM on November 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


Our entire approach to wildfires is crazy, and subsidizing a piece of the effort by using convict labor is just one tiny piece of it. But fshgrl is right, it's a competitive slot for the inmates -- of the many things wrong with this, coercion is not one of them.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:06 PM on November 1, 2014


I remember being in Piedmont, California checking up on an elderly friend during the Oakland Hills Fire, and seeing a school bus filled with mostly Latino and African-American men (all looking grim-faced) headed toward the fire line and exclaiming aloud "Oh my god, those are prisoners!"
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:09 PM on November 1, 2014


Sure its opt-in. And it beats that prison rodeo in terms of glory, but in some weird way this still smells like class exploitation. Maybe its the billion$ saved...
Were a prison crew to perish as firefighters sometimes do, I think Sacramento will find itself with serious image problems over this they shoulda seen coming.
posted by Fupped Duck at 11:17 PM on November 1, 2014


Lots of friends of my friends did this kind of "firefighting". Its the bottom rung of the ladder. It (at least in 1999) paid about $13 per hour. Which might sound like a lot, but it's absolutely dirty, smelly, brutal work. It's mostly 12 hours a day of cutting fire lines. If you were lucky, you got to poke every square inch of mountain side to see if it had any hotspots. After all that, you are likely as not to have to sleep on the ground. People saw it as the gateway into a real firefighter job. However, it taught a lot the people I know who did it that firefighting was not for them.
posted by sideshow at 11:27 PM on November 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


On the plus side, at least it's for an actual public service and not as dirt cheap labor for a for-profit corporation, as is happening in many prisons now.

I have mixed feelings about this whole thing. On one hand we have people who have no freedom being sent to do hard, dirty and dangerous work. On the other hand, a lot of these guys are glad to get out of the prison and be outdoors in the wilderness. I find that to be far better than just keeping them locked up, because at least they're contributing to society and doing something that gives them more self worth than sitting in a prison all day.
posted by azpenguin at 12:03 AM on November 2, 2014


If you make someone's situation dangerous and terrible enough, they'll compete and lie to get out of it.

That doesn't mean they weren't coerced. The only evidence you need for coercion is that a free person would demand a lot more money to do the same work.

This is the house slave/ field slave dynamic in a nutshell: it was the tyranny waiting for them in the fields that made slaves willing to put on a show of obsequious willingness in the house.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:20 AM on November 2, 2014 [19 favorites]


The idea of using prisoners to do dangerous shit like fighting wildfires is the sort of thing you'd see in a dystopian novel or a story from the Stalin era of the USSR. Also this:

But in the next few years, California may see more serious sentencing reform, which would help bring nonviolent drug offenders back to their families faster but would significantly damage the state’s firefighting capabilities at a time when every penny counts.

is hilariously evil. "Oh no, our supply of people who aren't in a good position to tell us no when we ask them to go do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world for less than half the minimum wage might be reduced!"
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:22 AM on November 2, 2014 [19 favorites]


California is a slave state? Why am I not surprised?
posted by b1tr0t at 6:40 AM on November 2, 2014


I thought it was an interesting article, but the implications of its portrayal of the problem definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:02 AM on November 2, 2014


California is a slave state? Why am I not surprised?

What do you mean by that? I mean sure, the California prison system is a mess, but so is the country's. What about California is so creatively abhorrent that slavery just clicks in your mind?
posted by lumensimus at 7:13 AM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


Using prisoners for forced labor is hardly unique to California- it's specifically authorized in the 13th Amendment, after all.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:24 AM on November 2, 2014


On one hand we have people who have no freedom being sent to do hard, dirty and dangerous work. On the other hand, a lot of these guys are glad to get out of the prison and be outdoors in the wilderness.

I'm sure lots of voters and policymakers agree with that sentiment, because they believe treating people like sort-of humans is better than treating them like less-than humans. This is obviously a step in the right direction, and that's something! Here's the problem, though:

I find that to be far better than just keeping them locked up, because at least they're contributing to society and doing something that gives them more self worth than sitting in a prison all day.

The assumption hinted at here, and just boldly stated elsewhere, is that prisoners don't know how to be productive members of society, so we need to teach them through work. Lots of people believe this. But every bit of it--the assumption that convicts aren't hard working, that they're ignorant about productive behavior, that our labor-based solutions solve any of this--is incredibly wrong.

Barr and folks like him are doing stupidly dangerous work with stupidly inadequate training. He accidentally cut himself twice with a chainsaw before his superior felt he should be reassigned. I struggle to imagine any non-convict job holding this sort of standard for reassignment. And we haven't even touched the >$2 day he makes doing the job. His labor gets wrapped in a "learning the value of hard work" disguise in part to prevent awkward questions about the $1 billion taxpayers save. But more importantly, this disguise also helps Joe Taxpayer envision prisoners as the architects of their own downfall--they chose not to be hard-working and cheat the system, that's why we're teaching them!--which puts the onus for rehabilitation on the prisoner, also known as Not Anybody Else. It's up to prisoners to fix themselves, the theory goes. We'll assist the fixing by sending them into debilitating heat with dangerous tools for less money than a six-year-old makes selling lemonade. Never mind that low-level offenders almost always come from poverty--a social problem, not a personal failure--to begin with. Never mind that these men and women are intimately aware of their own dramatically devalued labor even outside of prison. Never mind that every prisoner is smart enough to recognize the victim-blaming lie behind "educative hard work." Never mind that taxpayers pretend they themselves aren't that smart, because it's better to feign ignorance than acknowledge guilt and responsibility.

And then, the gut punch: these jobs really are better than prison. Despite everything, good-hearted, misguided non-convicts are right to believe that fighting fires for pennies is better than wallowing in prison, but only because our prisons are completely terrible and inappropriate. We can disguise our intentions by calling the work rehabilitative instead of exploitative, educative instead of merely cost-efficient, but nothing changes. These "jobs" are not justice. They simply aren't as completely unjust.

If prisoners are choosing to work 24-hour shifts fighting fires, with virtually no chance to even do that job permanently after they leave prison (the state won't hire them, and only a select few get hired by the Fed), maybe we should be asking why any rational human would make that choice.

If we decide the answer is that prisoners would simply rather be anywhere except the dangerous, overcrowded prisons they got sent to, then it's time to re-define the problem altogether. Maybe the problem isn't a sweeping ignorance of hard work or basic productivity. Maybe the problems are antiquated 3-strikes laws, Governor Brown's county jail/Supreme Court run-around, racist drug sentencing, and sweeping inequality. Maybe we should examine any one of these problems first before we tell prisoners this is their mess to solve.

And maybe not-so-secretly, we let prison labor kick the climate change can down the road and further justify our prison-industrial complex because this way, at least we don't feel so shitty and responsible about huge problems. Because scapegoats that are too busy fighting our fires don't have the time or opportunity to remind us we're wrong.

These men and women deserve so much better.
posted by Avarith at 8:21 AM on November 2, 2014 [20 favorites]


My stepfather started his CDCR career working in food service at the fire camps. There would be no forests left in California if it weren't for inmate firefighters. Doug LaMalfa's constituency would be burned out of their homes and more jobless and hungry than they already are (hey thanks for cutting SNAP funding btw!) without them. As fshgrl noted, prison jobs are highly competitive, ESPECIALLY fire camp assignments, but we need to pay them more and we need to ensure that the experience gained leads to steady employment after they're paroled. From the article:

It’s not easy for inmate firefighters to make the transition into professional firefighting. Wildland firefighter jobs are so competitive that 200 or 300 applications might come in for one opening, and Cal Fire is reluctant to promote the fact that they might hire well-trained felons over people with no criminal record, even for seasonal jobs. The Los Angeles County Fire Department won’t hire felons at all.

California Department of Corrections and REHABILITATION. How can we reduce recidivism if a supposedly rehabilitated inmate can't get a job after parole because he's got a felony on his record and no one will hire him? The way California treats its inmates is not nearly as bad as other places (does the name Joe Arpaio ring a bell for anyone?) but the whole of the United States needs to change the entire criminal justice system AND work on keeping young men out of prison in the first place.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:24 AM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


The fact that inmates compete for jobs as firefighters is an infinite condemnation of the prisons, not an endorsement of the firefighting job, and if the people in charge of California cannot protect its forests without using quasi-slavery to do it, that is their incompetence which needs punishing, not some bare, contextless fact. It is not true that inmate firefighters making a couple of bucks a day are necessary to preserve the forests. It is instead true that California's government prefers to exploit people in a bad position into finding a terrible, terrible deal to be the lesser of two evils.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:36 AM on November 2, 2014 [8 favorites]


Another thing that pisses me off about prison labor is that poverty is usually a huge part of what led people to be in prison in the first place. And poverty (as well as lack of good job placement) is a huge part of why people who get out of prison often end up back in it. A released inmate would benefit hugely from having built up funds from working while they were in prison (even if they didn't have access to it all right away, which would probably be a good idea). So paying them shitty wages screws them over even more than a regular person, and it does a lot to help make sure they can't survive outside of prison.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:47 AM on November 2, 2014 [7 favorites]


of the many things wrong with this, coercion is not one of them.

Don't have to hold a gun to their heads to make it coercive,
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:51 AM on November 2, 2014 [8 favorites]


It doesn't matter how nice the jobs are, or how well they pay at the moment. The moral hazard of using criminal law to fill an unsatisfied economic niche is unacceptable.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:38 AM on November 2, 2014 [4 favorites]


The assumption hinted at here, and just boldly stated elsewhere, is that prisoners don't know how to be productive members of society, so we need to teach them through work. Lots of people believe this. But every bit of it--the assumption that convicts aren't hard working, that they're ignorant about productive behavior, that our labor-based solutions solve any of this--is incredibly wrong.

Actually, the assumption here is that a great many of these convicts prefer to be productive members of society. Before they were in jail, quite a few of them were working, many of them working very hard at tough jobs. They committed whatever crime, and now they're stuck in prison. Most of them would rather be out and working again. I don't believe that this is solving anything, but that it's the most mitigating option for some of these people.

That's exactly what they are, too - people. That's something that many often forget about. When they think of "criminals" they think of someone who's committed to being evil all the time, almost a caricature. There's always the exceptions, the hard cases, but there's also a lot of them who got in trouble and are now stuck in prison for years. (And thrown into a cycle that often feeds itself, which is why I support "Ban The Box" among other things. But that's a discussion too big to fit into this.)
posted by azpenguin at 6:35 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


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