Columns, Opinion

Burke’s Bully Pulpit: California is exploiting prisoners’ labor

The wildfires in California rage on. The media is giving the fire ample airtime, but the fact that super-sized weather-related disasters are happening in record numbers isn’t hitting home as well as it should. While President Donald Trump may think that the outburst of wildfires is due to “gross mismanagement of the forests,” as he tweeted, many logical people realize that this is a result of climate change. Just when you thought his Twitter wars couldn’t get any crazier, Trump has picked a fight with some trees.

This is the deadliest wildfire in California history. The are 44 people confirmed to be dead and over 200 more are missing, according to information available Monday afternoon. Those affected by the fire have lost virtually every material possession that they owned. Many celebrities took time to express their gratitude to the firefighters battling the blazes as they encroach on their homes.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose everything you own in an instant. I know people say that possessions are replaceable, but lives aren’t. Where do you draw the line? I don’t know if I could easily leave my home, knowing it was going to be burned down with the things I’ve worked so hard to buy.

The videos of people escaping in their cars are ones you’d expect to see in a Hollywood dramatization of a nuclear war. It just didn’t register in my mind that these videos were taken by real people in the United States, presumably thinking that these were going to be their last moments on Earth. Imagine losing everything trying to escape your worst nightmare, only to see that the president was blaming forest management. I know for a fact that would not sit well with me. Trump proves again that basic human decency is a hard thing for him to grasp.

With that being said, there has been a bunch of buzz about the state of California paying prison inmates as little as $1 an hour — at the most — when battling an active fire. There were 2,000 inmates battling a fire in California earlier this year. By using such cheap labor, the state saves between $90 and $100 million dollars each year. It seems like the state might be pushing “volunteer” jobs onto prisoners to keep costs down. If that were true, it would be pure evil.

It’s easy to sit back and say, “Well, those guys are in prison and they’re volunteering, so that’s what they get for being a criminal in the first place!” It’s not easy to stomach the harsh reality that once these inmate firefighters are released, many are not able to become firefighters because of their criminal pasts. There are so many things wrong with the world that are easily preventable. Giving a former inmate the path to become a productive citizen by using their prior experience, fighting the same fires regular firefighters do, seems like an easy solution.

The sad reality is we all know that it probably will never be resolved. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks and attempts on politicians’ lives seem to be forgotten in a matter of weeks. We live in an outrage culture where one thing will always be around to top the next. I hope that the families affected by this natural disaster find peace soon. It is important to remember events like these. They’re not going away anytime soon. We can either get used to them or take steps to start protecting our planet like responsible human beings.

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