The Inmate Firefighters Risking Their Lives For $1 An Hour

“In other words… Slavery has not been completely abolished” – Dr Angela Davis, “Slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex.”

Davis, who grew up in the segregated southern city of Birmingham, Alabama, home of the 1963 terrorist bombings against the black community in which four little girls died, has dedicated her life to the struggle for social justice and civil rights, specifically within the black community in the USA. Her work on the abolition of the prison industrial complex, which has gained greater prominence following the 2016 Netflix documentary “13th”, has spanned over five decades and includes more than ten books. In her work, Davis, who was imprisoned following time spent on the FBI’s most-wanted list in 1970 and was realised in 1972 after a global campaign for her freedom, explores the institution of prisons as an enterprise, and the corporations whose profits are rooted at the centre of mass incarceration.

The title of Ana DuVernay’s award-winning Netflix documentary takes its name from the 13th Amendment. The political doctrine which was ratified in 1865 by congress and amended the American Constitution, ‘banning’ slavery, except, as the documentary highlights, as a punishment for crime.

Following the introduction of the 13th Amendment, the ‘liberation’ of slaves left huge gaps in the American labour market. Work that had once been carried out by force, for free, was no longer being completed. Meaning former slave owners and heads of industries that once utilised slave labour needed another way to fill the void of labour following the ‘end’ of slavery. The 13th Amendment provided a legal means through which this chasm could be bridged.

The introduction of the laws of the Jim Crow era in 1870 (which ran until 1965) meant that black people were to be racially segregated and could be arrested, en masse, for offences such as looking at a white woman, shaking hands with a white person or showing public affection to another black person. These laws ensured the continuation of white supremacy following slavery. Enabling prisoners to be declared ‘slaves of the state’; convict leasing allowed convicts to be ‘leased’ to private parties, such as plantation owners, mine owners and other corporations.

Labour as Penitence

Of course, if someone is convicted of a crime, they should be punished. But to what extent should this involve forced labour?

Not all crimes are worthy of the sentences inferred on them, if any, and with growing awareness of police violence towards (specifically) young black men in America, the systemic and disproportionate imprisonment of people of colour, means we can ascertain that the state of America’s criminal justice system doesn’t always protect those most vulnerable to its predatory laws.

American holds 25% of the world’s prisoners but just under 5% of the world’s population. In 1970, the prison population was 357,292. By 2014, the prison population was 2,306,200. Whilst one in 17 white men will serve time in prison, one in three African-American men will spend time behind bars and one out of four prisoners in the world, is imprisoned in the USA. This means more than half of all adult black women in America have at least one family member locked up.

Prisoners are forced to carry out labour to buy necessities, often at premium rates, such as clothing or shoes that fit (most prisoners can expect ‘one-size-for-all clothing and shoes upon arrival), soap (the cheapest soap is a 4-pack of Ivory for $3.50), toothpaste, phone-calls, pain-killers (a small packet of Aspirin is $1.50) or food. This factory-style labour can range from production lines for private companies, such as stitching $90 underwear for Victoria’s Secret, dealing with customer returns for Walmart or packaging coffee for Starbucks, earning as little as 23 cents to $1.15 per hour.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Not only are inmates being recruited to fight fires for a basic wage of around $2 a day plus $1 an hour, (compared to the average wage of a civilian firefighter in California coming in at $73,860 per year) they are also more likely to be injured whilst at work. During an active fire, inmates can be expected to work 24-hour shifts and given that more than 1,500 inmates received injuries so bad they required hospital treatment between June 2013 and August 2018, including being 8 times more likely to suffer smoke inhalation than civilians, the impact of this intensive work can have lasting impacts, long after their sentence has been served.

Beyond the health implications of working as an inmate firefighter, taking part in the programme doesn’t equate to opportunities for employment on the outside. With 65 million US adults holding a criminal record and 90% of employers carrying out criminal background checks, unemployment rates for former inmates soars to 27.3%, compared to 3.8% for the general public. With 4000 inmates working on the front line to tackle California’s wildfires last year, it’s inconceivable to think that after training for the position, these men won’t qualify for the same job once released.

Modern Slavery and America

The forced labour of America’s inmates, a disproportionate number of whom are people of colour (67%) – 94% of which are sentenced without trial – is so akin to the financial and state-protected infrastructure of slavery, that evaluations such as Dr.Davis’ are difficult to deny. Whether forcing humans to make up the production lines for designer outlets, filling up call centres with free labour for private corporations or allowing men to lose their lives fighting fires for less than the price of a bar of soap, the prison industrial complex and its ties to slave-era labour must be as Dr.Davis suggests “radically abolished” to make way for restorative justice and reconciliation that allows for true rehabilitation of offenders. A justice that allows for those most vulnerable in society to move access fair, unbiased and appropriate penance.