Forcing prison inmates to work as unpaid laborers is not a new practice, but GOP-controlled states are increasing taking the idea to extremes as they face budget shortfalls and refuse to raise taxes. Under Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) anti-collective bargaining law, at least one Wisconsin county replaced some union workers with prison labor. Inmates are not paid for their work, but may receive time off of their sentences.
Now Camden County in Georgia is considering tasking prisoners to take on one of the most dangerous jobs there is: fighting fires. Using prisoners as firefighters is a cost-cutting measure that’s expected to save the county a bundle:
A select group of inmates may be exchanging their prison jumpsuits for firefighting gear in Camden County.
The inmates-to-firefighters program is one of several money-saving options the Board of County Commissioners is looking into to stop residents’ fire insurance costs from more than doubling. […] The inmate firefighter program would be the most cost-effective choice, saving the county more than $500,000 a year by some estimates. But that option is already controversial, drawing criticism from the firefighters who would have to work alongside – and supervise – the prisoners.
The Camden program would put two inmates in each of three existing firehouses, and they would respond to all emergencies – including residential – alongside traditional firefighters. The inmates would have no guard, but would be monitored by a surveillance system and by the traditional firefighters, who would undergo training to guard the inmates.
The inmates would not be paid for their work, but upon release they would be eligible to work as firefighters five years after their conviction dates instead of the normal 10.
Naturally, many are questioning the wisdom of asking prisoners to put their own lives at risk in a dangerous job they don’t necessarily want to do. Not only would the program jeopardize inmates’ safety, but their potential lack of enthusiasm and training could jeopardize the lives of fire victims they are supposed to be saving. Firefighter Stuart Sullivan told the Florida Times-Union that firefighters choose the profession because they have a passion for serving the public and helping people, while the inmates would only be there as an alternate way to serve their sentences.
Many firefighters are speaking out against the idea, and don’t relish the additional responsibility of having to guard and worry about inmates as they are trying to put out fires and save lives. This distraction could be another life-threatening consequence of the measure. The program also runs the risk of inmates escaping — all in all a very dangerous proposition for public safety just to save money.
Georgia is not the first state to use prison slave labor to try to cut costs: in California there are more than 4,000 firefighting inmates stationed at 45 camps throughout the state.