California Uses Prison Labor To Fight Wildfires, but Is That Just?



Akash Bhowmick, Online Staff Writer

The recent California wildfires have ravaged the state, damaging millions of acres of land and impacting thousands of people. As a result, there has been a spike in the need for firefighters, of which there was already shortage due to the recent pandemic. While California wildfires have long been a problem, the current circumstances have created a special scenario. In the past, incarcerated people would be paid to fight fires in the state as well as work for a possibility of early parole. But, due to the pandemic, an early release program has been put in place.

While this may seem like a good idea, there are many ethical caveats that have been brought to the surface. Many criticized this action, as this is the time when incarcerated firefighters are needed the most, and releasing them would mean that they would be able to find other jobs outside of prison which would lead to fewer people available to fight fires. In addition, the purpose of prison must be considered. Although prison is meant to rehabilitate, it is also meant to force those incarcerated to pay retribution for their crimes, with the price being their freedom. Early releases in special circumstances may be viewed as unfair to society. There’s also a valid point surrounding the dangers of letting people in prison or jail back into society; who’s to say they won’t recommit the crimes that landed them there in the first place? 

On the other hand, the benefit that this system has on society must also be considered. Most people in prison are working for freedom and not the wages that come with the job, as they get a single dollar an hour. They work non-stop to save others to get a glimpse of freedom and see their loved ones again while constantly risking their lives. Moreover, this system ends up benefiting the people of California and firefighters who can stay home and keep themselves safe during the pandemic. Without the early release system, incarcerated people wouldn’t be as compelled to work as firefighters, largely in part to the immensely low wages they were granted before. Consequently, the argument that this system will lead to fewer available firefighters doesn’t hold up when put in context with previous circumstances. We must also consider the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and the dangers that come with being in prison or jail during times like these. Incarcerated people may have committed crimes, but they are still human, and condemning anyone to contracting this possibly deadly virus is completely unjust. 

While it’s true that there are many benefits to this system, there are also possible changes that could make it more effective. For example, some have proposed creating a bridge between incarcerated and professional firefighters. With a path to becoming professional firefighters, those incarcerated would both get a fair salary once out of prison, and the people of California would still have help. Even with this amendment, though, the early release system has no solution for the need for incarcerated people to pay retribution to society, or the danger of them repeating the actions that led to them being incarcerated. However, when those issues are put into perspective with the wildfires and the pandemic, it seems that the benefits to society outweigh the drawbacks. The state of California needs a solution to help stop the fires and this is the best option so far.