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California Wildfires: Inmates Are Risking Their Lives for $2 a Day (newsweek.com)
60 points by ryan_j_naughton 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments

Inmates ... are allowed to volunteer for the firefighting program and are trained for two weeks in fire safety... Once the exam is passed, prisoners are sent to live in one of 43 low-security field camps throughout the state.

Inmates do recognize that there are perks to the job. Their outdoor camps allow for more freedom. The food is better and grown in on-site gardens. Families are allowed to use barbecue pits for their visits and can often spend the night in nearby cabins.

It's voluntary, gives inmates a change to spend outside time in low security environments (potentially seeing family), gives them a break from monotonous prison environments AND gives them 2 days off their sentence for every one day served. Not sure how this voluntary labor with significant benefits for an inmate is equivalent to slavery.

I used to be a volunteer firefighter and really enjoyed the work. I was not an inmate, nor do I see a distinction here. Thousands of civilians risk their lives every day for $0/day fighting fires.

> It's voluntary and gives inmates a chance to [...]

Bullshit. Nothing is truly voluntary when you are in a situation of such extreme power imbalance. Other things that are voluntary in name only: pleading guilty because the DA made you an "offer you can't refuse"; working in a prison-run sweatshop for a fraction of minimum wage; buying basic necessity goods at a huge premium from the prison store.

> Not sure how this voluntary labor is any worse than involuntary community service.

You are correct, they are equally terrible.

I mean, should there be an equal power balance in prisons...?

> I mean, should there be an equal power balance in prisons...?

I think a better question is "should inmates be protected from the risk of abuse created by extreme power imbalance? And if so, where do we draw the line as a society?".

My answer to the first question is yes, they should be protected.

My answer to the second question is: respecting the universal declaration of Human Rights and the US constitution would be a great start.

It’s voluntary...they receive training, see family, get time knocked off, serve the community/others.

Dare I say it actually sounds like a rehabilitation program.

Of course it’s very easy to criticize on a forum behind a screen. So tell us how you have personally helped a prisoner combat the extreme power imbalance you observe beyond criticizing existing programs.

(Second take at an answer since my first one took us down the wrong path).

I agree that it looks like a rehabilitation program. It just seems like a bad one, because:

1) you shouldn’t have to risk your life to see your family or get time knocked off your sentence. It’s simply not normal that prisoners have to make this choice in a situation where their agency and access to alternatives are so limited; but this program contributes to normalizing it.

2) as others have pointed out, prisoners receive “training” for a trade that they won’t be allowed to practice after they serve their sentence. This tells me that rehabilitation wasn’t the primary motivation, or if it was, it was poorly thought out.

Overall this feels like a very slippery slope... even if this particular program is the best possible implementation of the idea, with proper training, and rules in place to avoid treating prisoners as relatively more expendable, putting them in more danger than other firemen, etc. My question is: what if it weren’t a perfect implementation, and abuse did occur? Are there any incentives and checks to prevent such abuse? Or would we all collectively shrug and say “seems like rehabilitation, nothing to see here”.

Given the general state of the carceral system in the US, I think the burden should be on the people responsible for this program to acknowledge these risks, and go out of their way to reassure the concerns of citizens like myself. It definitely is not reasonable to dismiss my criticism unless I prove a track record of helping prisoners first-hand as you have done. My opinion on the issue is just as legitimate as yours, and I wish you hadn’t dismissed it in the way you did (I also wish I hadn’t overreacted to it, we could have had a more constructive debate).

zapita 5 months ago [flagged]

> Of course it’s very easy to criticize on a forum behind a screen. So tell us how you have personally helped a prisoner combat the extreme power imbalance you observe beyond criticizing existing programs.

Yes, it's very easy to criticize behind a screen. In some cases, people who do it too much even develop an extreme sense of entitlement, and start acting like the world owes them a response to even the most ridiculous demands. Although I have noticed that it's mostly white men who develop this issue - excessive entitlement is a common side effect of excessive privilege.

Asking someone for more than criticism of a topic isn’t criticism or entitlement, it’s engagement.

If I were to have blindly said the program is more than you have ever done for the encarcerated, without knowing your experience, fine, but I didn’t do that.

I personally have served as legal counsel to untold numbers of detained immigrants and criminal defendants. I coordinated the legal representation of all the Haitian minors in the 2008 Hallandale Beach Haitian boat crisis. I have made complaints against guards in the Chrome Detention Center for referring to my client as a bitch in front of me specifically referencing my clients physical appearance as a result of a hormone imbalance that gave my male client breasts. I have filed motions for fraud upon the court against the chief broward county prosecutor against the interests of my own career. I know a thing or two about the system and the ugliness of the system, and tried engaging you and your generic response about declaration of human rights and the constitution to support your criticism of this program. And your response is to lash out against white males because their excessive privilege and suggesting my demand is ridiculous, that’s very interesting.

It’s great that you did all these things. But it doesn’t make your demand any less bizarre and entitled. If your experience made you wise and knowledgeable, by all means, share your wisdom and knowledge with us! So far all I’m seeing from you is this bizarre “credentials contest”.

As I stated before my experience and knowledge of the realities of the system suggests this sounds like a rehabilitation program.

On the other hand I haven’t mentioned my credentials...I mentioned some small bit of my first hand experience in relation to the topic of encarceration and power imbalance.

My wisdom, if any, suggested to better understand your point of view I’d ask about your experience...I never knew trying to understand someone by asking about their experience was a bizarre entitlement and privilege of the white man. It’s funny though my encarcerated clients have always been more than happy to share their experiences with me, their experiences that lead to encarcerated, their experience being encarcerated...and they were always happy to ask about mine.

It could be rehabilitation, if they were actually able to work as firefighters after serving their sentence.

Also, I am concerned by the lack of death benefits for the families of those that die. It's a pretty clear statement that their lives are nearly worthless.

Indirectly telling someone their life is of very low value, then putting barriers in the way of them returning to work and society after they have served their debt to society does not sound like rehabilitation to me.

There is a lot there.

Lack of death benefits/life insurance speaks to a much broader issue facing most non-incarcerated individuals, including, many with high risk jobs. However, if they have the resources the family could take out life insurance policies, and even if waivers are signed if the program was negligent in training or providing faulty equipment to the participants then the family/heirs have access to courts and lawyers take wrongful death cases on contingency. For example, look at Walmart, using sophisticated computer systems they take out life insurance policies on their employees (including minimum wage workers on food stamps/SNAP) and cash in when the employees die and give the families nothing.

Whether they participate in this program or not, it is true there are barriers in place to a living wage for people transitioning out of incarceration. Again I’d say the reality is there are many barriers for people who have no criminal record to getting a job. The question might be does this program hurt them from getting a job...well obviously if you die yes, but otherwise, it can only help. Personally I don’t think it’s society or the system, it’s individuals in the companies making decisions with the reality of the number of people competing for the same job...despite low unemployment numbers I believe all potential employees are low value.

You should probably just stop. Reading over your discussions as an outside spectator shows zapita to simply respond for argument sake. Don't feed trolls.

Regardless of anything else, I don't think that kind of casual racism is going to make anything better.

zapita 5 months ago [flagged]

Ah yes, pointing out the existence of a privilege system built on racism, and a relationship between privilege and entitlement - the hallmarks of casual racism!

Well no, it's mostly how someone started by asking you a question (in a slightly rude way in my opinion), and you immediately found a way to work in how they're a terrible person, and how they're probably a terrible person on account of being white.

This isn't a "white fragility, white people can't handle hearing about privilege" deal, it's a you deal, where you specifically are using race-based stereotypes to dismiss and dehumanize your fellow human beings.

zapita 5 months ago [flagged]

Sorry, I don’t follow. What race-based stereotype am I using? And how exactly am I dehumanizing anyone?

I think you’re confused about what racism is, and how it works.

This comment breaks the HN guidelines by introducing extraneous flamebait and taking the thread into tedious flamewar. Please don't do that on HN.


That wasn't the intention. I will be more careful.

It was too late to delete or edit my comment, so I made a second reply which hopefully does not break the guidelines. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17747043

Much better! Thanks.

I guess section 1 of the 13th amendment to the us constitution is:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Which literally allows for slavery if convicted.

source: https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=us%20constitution%2013...

Right. And it’s precisely that systemic capital incentive to convict more citizens of crime that is so contentious. It’s not a simple matter to navigte, and varying in different government organizations, but a few things remain true:

1) Ending prison labor, or giving equal pay to prisoners, would negate the incentive outright.

2) Privatization of corrections facilities further complicates the matter, raising the incentives for unethical behavior.

So, there is a clear cut ethical path here. It just has a smaller profit margin. Nothing new.

Equal pay would likely make labor programs like this infeasible since there are overhead costs, like the feeding, housing, and guarding of prisoners. Those costs are not present for regular employees / volunteers.

What part of the Constitution isn't being respected?

AND might give some inmates a sense that while the government did put them in prison to begin with, government isn’t just there to hurt you. The government also provides services that directly benefit those in the society.

AND, maybe they will want to pursue becoming firefighters or other similar jobs once they leave prison.

Title is intentionally inflamatory (no pun intended). It's a voluntary system, for which they get $2/day plus $1/hr, get to live in a low security camp with more freedom than prison, and get 2 days off their sentence for every day they're working.

I'm not saying it's enough, or good or bad, but to claim that it's only $2/day is just being willfully ignorant, and really gets in the way of leading any real discussion on what the propert pay should be for prison labor.

A lot of the comments here suggest that, because participation is voluntary and because there are other incentives, like spending time outside, reduced sentences, etc, this practice is unquestionably fine. For me, the thing that makes it ethically complex is precisely that there are strong incentives for the prisoners to engage in risky, difficult work. Would you apply the same logic to people engaging voluntarily in affairs with powerful superiors?

I worked as a seasonal firefighter for 6 years as I paid my way through college, at the time it was called California Dept. of Forestry (CDF) now California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection (or Cal Fire). I worked alongside the very hardworking inmate handcrews many times, their work like mine was difficult and risky yet we both chose to be there.

I made great money for my skill/expertise at the time, there isn't much I could have done with my summers that would have benefited me more, so there was a strong incentive for me to go back every summer, even given the inherent risks. I think an argument could be made that for many inmates, the benefit of a reduced sentence is similarly worth the risk, the payout in accrued daily/hourly time is just another bonus.

The article mentions not being able to be employed as a firefighter once they are released. This is (or at least was) false, there is (was) no requirement for an EMT and I personally worked with a former inmate as a firefighter and he's a captain now. I've talked to these guys/gals several times and they were all very happy and proud to be there, they had to be on their best behavior to stay and it was certainly a privilege for them.

Seriously though, these guys/gals work HARD! They are called handcrews because they use hand tools (chainsaws, axes, Pulaskis, McLeods, etc.) to cut fireline, this is by far the hardest thing I have ever done and they do it for hours in hot and smokey conditions. When we would see an inmate crew coming, it made our day and we were all very thankful for them.

Note, my hourly pay wasn't actually great, but during fires I racked up tons of overtime. It probably isn't too much different than locking an McDonald's employee in for weeks at a time, but having to pay them for the entire time they were there.

I think your example of a powerful superior is a little different. In the case of a superior, there’s a vague implication that non-participation will result in some undesirable outcome like a smaller bonus.

It’s basically a monopoly situation where the compensation for dangerous work is pretty low, but all compensation is prison is low.

Inmates can choose to do this. Considering that, I don't have a problem with this at all.

I assume firefighters are not unionized in California? Otherwise I imagine the union getting pretty upset that unskilled, non union members are being paid to do the job of union members.

Some departments are. There are two major unions that my department was considering when unions were brought up, the International Association of Firefighters and Service Employees International Union.

The IAFF has 30,254 members as of 2015 per the Office of Labor Management Standards and they are roughly 1.1 million firefighters in the US.

Ultimately, my department decided not to unionize. I don't actually recall firefighter I worked with from my area being a member of a union as part of being a firefighter, most of them were union through ambulance companies.

Even if they were, I can't imagine them saying much.

When fire season starts in California, you couldn't produce enough hands to get the job done at basically any price.

Cal Fire is unionized, Local 2881.

When I was a seasonal firefighter for Cal Fire (CDF at the time), every figherfighter had some level of union support, but there was "Full Share" and "Fair Share" options.

That's a pretty bad assumption. . .

I guess I should have said... I assume the firefighters they are working beside are not unionized. I've never seen a union allow un-unionized workers do the job of one of their members.

$2 + 2 days of freedom

I would wager some HN karma that people that are libertarian (classical liberal) likely see no major issue with this practice.

libertarianism contradicts classical liberalism

I think this is where I read the best argument for this (https://chomsky.info/government-in-the-future/) but I might be thinking of a different essay

For obvious reasons libertarianism has multiple meanings. Chomsky is close to anarcho-syndicalism (left) whereas what we commonly call Libertarian today is close to anarcho-capitalism (right). Relating to the article, the inmates are making a choice without direct use of force against them. Libertarians view this choice as voluntary.


I made an account to respond to you. I used to be a volunteer firefighter in California, and I agree, they are severely under compensated for the work they do. As a volunteer, I at least had workers' compensation coverage if I was injured or killed in the line of duty.

The prison firefighters I worked with regularly were as dedicated and well trained as any other firefighter I had the pleasure of working with and would trust them to watch my back. Very few people knew they were prisoners outside of the departments in the area, either.

Most of the guys I worked with I would have been proud to see on my department after their release, and it bothers me that they are denied the opportunity after serving so long as firefighters within the penal system.

Interesting it's allowed for by the 13th amendment.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

edit: don't be so harsh on yourself, establishing a comparison between penal labor and slavery is an interesting point, even if you did so in a non chalant manner

Except the firefighting job isn't a punishment of a crime. They are volunteering for this job, no one is making them do it.

My uncle used to love fire season back in his convict days so he could get out into nature and have something to pass the time.

"volunteering"... you can do nothing in a cage (while under threat of violence and abuse given the environment) or get a shiny nickel for doing a day's backbreaking labor, and some exploitive corp makes bank by saving on salary costs. deeply, thoroughly disgusting.

Unsure if fiction and reality are aligned here, but at least in Orange is the new Black, inmates are deemed incapable of giving consent (when considering sexual relations with guards).

If that’s true, does it extend out past sexual activities through to workplace choices? Do they actually have a choice, do they actually consent? What’s the difference? Where’s the line?

In Netflix 'Fire Camp' doc, there's a section on inmates who join to fight fires. From what I could see, they inmates have to pass strict conditioning/training to actually work as a fire fighter.

I'd guess if one didn't want to do it, he/she could just slack off and not join.

Look it up and watch the show if you can.

There’s a documentary on Netflix called 13th that discusses this very point in much more depth. Despite the somber and serious nature, it’s a surprisingly light watch.

Check out “13TH” on Netflix https://www.netflix.com/title/80091741

I'm glad you posted that. I was about to post that the inmates should sue claiming that they are slaves.

I wonder if someone who understands the law better than I could could argue that they were not "duly convicted."

Combined with the systematic targeted incarceration of black people and they’ve basically figured out a loop hole to the abolition of slavery.

Who is "they"? I'll be honest, most people who use vague terms like this and act like there is a segment of society out to get them seem like Alex Jones to me

For starters, Richard Nixon: https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-rich...

Source above is provided for your convenience.

You can't just identify who "they" are because it's not black and white like the way they targeted black people. It extends from Nixon to Nixon supporters, white people, Asian people, cops, robbers, and even other black people. It can include all those people but not necessarily every of those people. This is because it's not a distinct group targeting black people, but a way of thinking. Obviously by paying taxes I also help support the system to some degree.

The problem can even be as innocuous as the unintentional indirect disenfranchisement of black people by simply doing "favors" or preferring everyone but black people in everyday life.

> ...most people who use vague terms like this and act like there is a segment of society out to get them

I'm not using this term to act like there is a segment of society out to get me (what I assume you mean when you said "people" and "them".). I'm using "they" to describe the group disenfranchising "black people" who are a group that is distinct from anything that I identify as (racially at least)... The reason why I say a vague "they" is because this group cannot be defined simply by a 1-dimensional construct such as skin color, ethnicity, political party, etc. I don't think it does any good to describe them as "racists" either as many people will discriminate unknowingly, unintentionally, simply due to it being the predominant normal behavior. This "they" can be white, Asian, police, a drug gang, even other black people... because it describes a mindset that systematically discriminates and disenfranchise a group based on their outward characteristics rather than evaluating them as individuals. Does it blow your mind that one can observe such discrimination without being the direct target of it? Because in the end it's not really an attack on black people, it's just an attack, and such a thing can happen to any group, and has.

Maybe that's because you're part of a privileged group that doesn't experience discrimination and targeted hate every day? For you, the idea of a segment of society being out to get you is a delusion. For millions of others, it's a concrete reality. If you're in a minority group in the US, you know exactly who "they" are in the parent's sentence.

alternatively, the demand for specific individuals as a retort is a sort of dissembling misdirection. "they" doesn't generally mean very specific individuals, but systems, processes "the powers that be", etc.

I don't know why you're being downvoted (or perhaps I am not willing to face the obvious answer...). What you're saying is an objective fact. Both the political intent of re-implementing slavery by other means, and the effective result, are well documented.

For every day worked, inmates have days removed from their sentence and are paid for hours worked. Comparing this to slavery is silly hyperbole.

slaves throughout history had lodging and meals provided, so it seems we can say they had a sort of compensation structure too.

Slaves were forced to perform labor. These inmates are not forced to perform this labor, and they are compensated for it.

Usually threatening to put someone in jail if they don't work for you is considered "force".

Late edit to clarify: the argument that they "deserve" their original sentence doesn't hold water once you start offering to commute the sentence in exchange for work. At that point the deciding factor in how long someone is in jail is whether they work, and that is force.

To go further, this has perverse incentives in that jailing people provides a source of cheap labor. But that's not what I was talking about specifically.

slaves were compensated with food, and were incentivized through application of force. inmates are under constant threat of violence and abuse, which is itself a force. escaping that force briefly to do hard labor is a sad tradeoff and it is a cynical and disgusting brand of exploitation.

> Slave trade.

They are not forced to do this.

The fact that volunteering for this kind of duty is better than daily life in prison bespeaks a different problem.

The alternative is to serve their publicly mandated sentences in a cell, if they so choose.

I don't see why inmates shouldn't work, that's the least they can do to pay back for the harm they have done. Also last time I checked it's really expensive to maintain prison system in US, who do you identify with more poor people or criminals?

And yet, here we are, concerned that immigrants are taking our jobs - when we have prisoners doing them for free.

it's a democracy, run for office and change the system.

just one small piece of it is who goes to prison in the first place. john oliver had a segment on prosecutors and that they need more competition https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ET_b78GSBUs

Or since it’s California, skip the running for office part and get your law on the ballot via direct democracy.


"See that's that privately owned prisons Get your piece today They prolly all in the Hamptons Braggin' 'bout what they made Fuck you and your Hampton house I'll fuck your Hampton spouse" - Kanye West

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