California wildfires: Should US policy turn over a new leaf?

Sean Simpson & Joe Holloran look at the political responses to the devestating Californian wildfires.

Sean Simpson
26th November 2018
Image:Flickr - JeffHead

Today in the United States, perhaps in the same city or neighbourhood, two children are being raised by their families with the intention that they will one day move out, go to college, or start a family of their own.

According to the NAACP, the future of one of those children will be five times more likely to end in imprisonment because they are black. This trend, although not as extreme, applies also to Hispanics and those of other ethnic minorities, particularly working-class males.

Consider for a moment the implications this has on the ubiquitous practice of forced labour in US prisons. Last week, international attention was drawn to the many firefighters who helped deal with the California wildfires, many of whom were prisoners. They were compensated meagrely, or not at all, with threats as severe as solitary confinement for non-compliance. The odds are that a large portion of these ‘volunteered’ firefighters are from the American underclass of working class minorities, enlisted to risk their lives in strenuous conditions to protect some of California’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.

It would be a stretch not to call these people ‘slaves’ to a system that is designed to trap them. The 13th Amendment to the American constitution, which allows penal servitude, even calls this slavery. The unnecessary privatisation that plagues every aspect of American society has once again created a demand to be capitalized upon through the exploitation of a group that few care to advocate for. A diminishing prison population should be reason for celebration in any healthy justice system. Why is it that, just four years ago, the Californian Attorney General Kamala Harris, had to be ordered to release non-violent prisoners, fighting against this on the grounds that “prisons would lose a valuable labor pool”?

The truth is that private prisons - and the practice of forced prison labour - were started as a direct result of economic decline in the southern US following the abolition of slavery. The result is a modern slavery system that is simply the descendant of the old one. America did not abolish slavery, it simply legitimized a much smaller version of it. It is no wonder that while America holds roughly 4% of the world’s population it has 22% of the world’s prisoners, and a  hugely disproportionate amount of those are from ethnic minorities. In a word, the California fires showed us an enslaved underclass in the land of the free.

Sean Simpson

The USA today is a land of divisiveness, where everything is viewed through a party political lens. This includes the aftermath of the recent devastating wildfires in California.

While the current White House squatter sat back and did nothing as a ‘Blue State’ burned, the world watched with admiration at the work done by the states firefighters, the vast majority of whom are citizen volunteers.

However, among the 9,400 volunteers and professionals were 1,500 current inmates of California penal system. Their involvement has sparked a renewed debate around prisoner rehabilitation and labour conditions within the American prison system. These convicts are part of a DOJ program called ‘Conservation Camp’, where those who volunteer to take on environmental clean-up work get credit and occasionally time off their sentence. On the surface this program seems to be a positive one, something you’d expect from a Scandinavian system rather than one in the States.

There are however issues. As reported by Time, inmate firefighters are four times more likely to be injured in duty compared to volunteers. In fact over an eighteen-month period between February 2016 and July 2017, three of these inmates died in the field. They are often pushed into the front-lines of the most dangerous fires, resulting in dozens of injuries since the program began. This story highlights the wider issue of prison labour in the USA, a system that some - myself included - have compared to modern day slavery.

America has the largest prison population on Earth. According to 2016 DOJ data, 2.6 million Americans are currently incarcerated. To put this into perspective, that number was 500,000 in 1986. Since then, successive Republican and Democratic presidents have continued to sell off federal prisons to private for-profit companies. These companies earn more money from the state per inmate.

Is it any wonder that the rates have gone up? Within these prisons the inmates are forced to manufacture a whole range of goods often for as little as $1 per day. Most of these items are military based. For instance much of the helmets, ammunition, belts, bullet-proof vests, ID-tags and uniforms for the US military are produced by prison labourers. There is no clearer example of the toxic military-industrial complex that forms the backbone of right-wing political thought in the US.

The use of prisoners in tackling the wildfire problem has been controversial. Image:PublicDomainPictures

What is disappointing is that the Democratic Party have not highlighted this as an issue. The Republicans are the entertainment arm of the arms-production industry, no change will ever come from them. Certainly not with the bloated-Wotsit occupying the Oval Office. The only hope comes from this new generation of ‘woke’ and diverse senators and their ability to recognise and end this form of new slavery.

Joe Holloran

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