200 California state prisoners were among the many firefighters from around the state and the country that helped fight the devastating wildfires in California this year, reported the ACLU. The prisoners were paid $1.45 a day for their service. They are excluded from the basic protections that benefit most workers like the guarantee of minimum wage. Prisoners cannot join or form unions, and the meager wages that they earn can be taken away by the prison officials. When they are released from prison their experience as firefighter will not get them jobs as firefighters because of their felony convictions.
Another disturbing aspect is how the use of prisoner labor could potentially affect California state policy. In 2014 the California prison system was found to be out of compliance with a Supreme Court ruling that limited the amount of people held in minimum security and ordered the state to grant early release credits to prisoners. State lawyers argued that releasing prisoners would greatly reduce the number of available people needed to fight fires. They hoped to maintain a cheap labor pool just in case but luckily the state lost that case.
The ACLU stated that “the best way to protect prisoner workers is to treat them as much as possible like non-incarcerated employees.” What would be better would be to work to create alternatives to deal with community problems and not depend on police, punishment and imprisonment any longer.