Home Opinion OPINION: Democrats Discuss — California inmates: fighting fires and COVID-19

OPINION: Democrats Discuss — California inmates: fighting fires and COVID-19

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Maddie Kramer is a senior studying political science. She is a member of the Ohio University College Democrats. The following article reflects the opinions and views of the author and does not represent the thoughts of the Ohio University College Democrats.

This is a submitted column. Please note that these views and opinions do not reflect those of The New Political.

Pictures of orange and red skies in Colorado, California and Oregon have gone viral recently following several large scale fires in the western states. The scene is eerily apocalyptic: barren streets and masked citizens against dark red skies. While many are focused on evacuating while maintaining social distance due to COVID-19 and the accessibility of first aid, an important topic is overlooked by many — who is fighting the fires.

It is not a secret that the western states usually use prison labor to fight the bushfires. The state of California relies on it by incentivizing prisoners to work for early release credits and saving the state money as the prisoners are paid considerably less than minimum wage. Currently, there are over 1,300 inmates fighting the fires. 

Using prison labor to fight massive wildfires for fiscal reasons, however, is a blatant abuse of human rights.

Now, add the pandemic to the mix. The prison population is already struggling with coronavirus spreading at expedited rates within the prison walls — more than 2,500 prisoners and staff have been infected with the virus in the San Quentin State Prison in California since May.

Unfortunately, it seems that the prison system cannot catch a break. Almost 3,000 prisoners have been moved due to the fires in the Oregon prison system. The prisoners who usually fight the fires are in short supply because of the risk of coronavirus or being released early due to the pandemic. 

Using prisoners as cheap labor to put their lives at risk is inhumane. Even with the early release credits, the prison system is blatantly exploiting these inmates. 

However, California just took a massive step in helping those who are hoping to continue their firefighting career after they are released.

Prior to this new California law, many felons could not pursue professional firefighting once they were released due to their criminal record. This program will expunge records of non-violent offenders, making it possible for them to apply to become an EMT, a first step in becoming a firefighter. 

California has faced harsh critiques and is now seeking to right its wrongs. In 2019, the state began to phase out all private prisons by 2028 and was not to sign any more contracts with privately owned prisons after Jan. 1, 2020. This, combined with expunging records for non-violent offenders, is certainly a step in the right direction. 

Even though firefighting is a respected career, we should not rely on our prison population to volunteer for such a dangerous task. California should not depend on inmates to fight the fires because it is an unstable workforce, let alone the human rights issues. 

Much of the conversation surrounding the western fires currently is regarding climate change. It is important, however, to remember those who are fighting those fires and those who may not be properly compensated for their hard work. 

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