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Inmate firefighters treated unfairly

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In light of the recent California wildfires, a New York Times article written in 2017 was recommended to me: “The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires.” The article depicted the life and untimely death of Shawna Lynn Jones, a prisoner who died battling the Mulholland fire.

Inmate firefighters in California make less than two dollars an hour while on the job. Considering that it’s such risky business and hard work, this seems low. Equally as disconcerting is the ironic fact that these inmates are not often hired to work as firefighters once they’ve finished their sentence because of their criminal records.

There are a variety of questions we can pose about this reality. For example, should prison labor exist at all, seeing as it’s questionable whether or not one can engage in any sort of true voluntary activity while being imprisoned? Is any sort of punishment or rehabilitation sensical and/or justifiable for those imprisoned on the basis of drug offences or other non-violent crime? Is any concept of rehabilitation through imprisonment a legitimate one? These are all worth thinking about, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that voluntary labor is possible in prisons, even though it probably isn’t, and that rehabilitation of inmates via labor is sensical.

Why, if we are trying to rehabilitate these inmates, would we pay them so little? Especially given the fact that working as a firefighter is so dangerous, surely their labor is worth more than what they’re being given. Now, I don’t know exactly how much that amount should be. I won’t pretend to be an expert or even well-read on punitive policy-making, but I would think that they should be paid something at least close to, if not at, the minimum wage. I’m sure some might argue that the more we increase the amount prisoners are paid, the less desirable staying out of prison becomes, but I think there are plenty of other reasons people usually want to stay out of prison. Minimum wage isn’t anything to salivate over. Most of us aren’t willing to run toward a fire even without the additional price of confinement.

“I have a hunch that our willingness as a nation to provide these inmate firefighters with so little is due to our willingness to dehumanize inmates more broadly.” – Iain Carlos ’20

Others might argue that it’s simply fiscally irresponsible of the state to start paying prisoners more given how much work they do and how dependent we are on them as a labor source. Well, that’s on us to find another labor source. If we’re designing the prison system such that its purpose is to fulfill our need for cheap labor, we’re doing something wrong. That’s not what a prison is supposed to do. Perhaps the state benefitting from the labor of inmates during the process of rehabilitation is justifiable, but this should only ever be a byproduct, never the direct intention of a prison.

On whether or not inmate firefighters should be allowed to join the fire department after completing their sentence, the question seems absurd. The whole point of their labor was for the sake of rehabilitation. If the inmate has managed to find a vocation they enjoy and/or can forge a dignified life with, this should be celebrated and encouraged.

We have no chance of rehabilitating anybody if we permanently forbid former inmates from taking up certain lines of work – especially lines of work that they spend a great deal of their sentence training for. Any argument that holds that the character of these former inmates isn’t up to the task of working as free firefighters seems to be forgetting that rehabilitation is tasked with reinserting former inmates into a domain of freedom, and that clearly these souls have proven their competency in their line of work thus far.

I have a hunch that our willingness as a nation to provide these inmate firefighters with so little is due to our willingness to dehumanize inmates more broadly. Change will come when we can think of people like Shawna Lynn Jones as heroes, not as problems.   


Iain Carlos Irwin ’20 (irwin2@stolaf.edu) is from Chicago, Ill. He majors in religion.