California's Prison Labor Problem

California Attorney General Kamala Harris said that she was "shocked" by the Los Angeles Times report that lawyers from her office had argued in court that if forced to expand prison releases per the order of federal judges, prisons would lose an important labor pool. But almost-free labor is practically the only argument the state has left for continuing to lock up as many people as California does. And as more and more of California understands this practice’s obvious immorality, the state may have no choice but to actually comply with judicial orders.

Since 2011, California prison overcrowding has been ruled in violation of the Constitution. California now has until 2016 to become compliant with the Supreme Court’s ruling, but the overcrowding issue is not the only problem in California’s criminal prosecution system that needs to be drastically changed. 

Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that as recently as 2011, nearly half of the incarcerated population in federal prisons were serving time for drug offenses. As more and more states legalize marijuana possession, use, and sale, and we see that the overall effects are positive, it makes less and less sense to continue prosecuting people for drug offenses. California has taken a step in the right direction with the passage of Prop 47 this year, which reclassified some drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

There are no sound arguments for incarcerating people at the rate that California does it. The only argument left is that California prisoners are a source of obscenely cheap labor. According to Buzzfeed, "California has had over 5,300 wildfires [this year], which is about 700 more than had occurred by this time in 2013, and a thousand more than the five-year average. Now, as the West is coming to the end of one of the driest, hottest years in recorded history, the work of inmate firefighters has become essential to California’s financial and environmental health.”

Over four thousand inmates make up about half of the force fighting these fires for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, saving the state about $1 billion annually. We do not pay incarcerated people even close to what trained firefighters would make for the same work. Prison labor is frequently and aptly compared to slavery (and of course it’s worth noting that the constitution only prohibits slavery for people outside of prison).

The fact that prison labor can take over public jobs that the state would ordinarily be required to pay at least minimum wage for is a strong incentive for the state to continue the unconstitutional abuses of California’s prison overcrowding. The state can hardly argue that nonviolent drug offenders are violent, nor that California voters want to keep them in prison.

Kamala Harris may have been surprised that lawyers spoke openly about the state’s need for slave labor, but she can’t be surprised by that logic; it’s all prison proponents have left.

You can contact the state Attorney General’s office here, to let them know that the Supreme Court has ruled, and the voters of California have spoken: it’s time to release prisoners. It’s just, it’s moral, and it’s mandatory.

Harry Waksberg is a Riverside-based writer and lazeabout. This year, he is thankful for the passage of Proposition 47.