California's Reliance on Exploitative Prison Labor Has Weakened Its Wildfire Response

California's Reliance on Exploitative Prison Labor Has Weakened Its Wildfire Response
Photo:Josh Edelson/AFP (Getty Images)

As more than 13,700 firefighters battle against the 585 blazes currently burning a hole in California the size of Rhode Island, Gov. Gavin Newsom has called on other states and even other countries for backup.

“These fires are stretching our resources, stretching our personnel,” Newsome said at a press conference on Friday, per Newsweek, where he requested assistance from as far away as Canada and Australia. “We simply haven’t seen anything like this in many, many years.”

California’s ability to address these simultaneous blazes—two of which mark the second and third largest ever in the history of the state—would have likely been tenuous no matter what; this year has seen an unusually high number of dry lightning storms, with more expected to touch down on Sunday. But it would appear that the state’s reliance on cheap, exploitative prison labor to contain wildfires has only contributed to this ongoing crisis.

For decades, incarcerated individuals have played “a crucial role in containing the blazes striking the state with more frequency and ferocity in recent years,” The New York Times reported on Saturday. Said individuals have been paid as much as $5.12 per day plus an additional dollar per hour for their efforts—far below the state’s minimum wage, much less the average firefighter’s income.

But because Newsom agreed to release thousands of people from California state prisons early in an effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus early this year—a decision that will likely spare many lives, given the prison system’s alarming covid-19 infection and death rates—hundreds of those would-be firefighters are missing in action, per the Times’ estimate.

Had the state not relied so heavily on exploitative prison labor to handle something as critical as its wildfire response—perhaps if it had invested in a more robust, publicly funded statewide firefighting program—it might have been at least somewhat better prepared to deal with the crisis at hand.

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