Out of California’s years-long litigation over reducing the population of prisons deemed unconstitutionally overcrowded by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, another obstacle to addressing the U.S. epidemic of mass incarceration has emerged: The utility of cheap prison labor.
In recent filings, lawyers for the state have resisted court orders that they expand parole programs, reasoning not that releasing inmates early is logistically impossible or would threaten public safety, but instead that prisons won’t have enough minimum security inmates left to perform inmate jobs.
The dispute culminated Friday, when a three-judge federal panel ordered California to expand an early parole program. California now has no choice but to broaden a program known as 2-for-1 credits that gives inmates who meet certain milestones the opportunity to have their sentences reduced. But California’s objections raise troubling questions about whether prison labor creates perverse incentives to keep inmates in prison even when they don’t need to be there.
The debate centers around an expansive state program to have inmates fight wildfires. California is one of several states that employs prison labor to fight wildfires. And it has the largest such program, as the state’s wildfire problem rapidly expands arguably because of climate change. By employing prison inmates who are paid less than $2 per day, the state saves some $1 billion, according to a recent BuzzFeed feature of the practice. California relies upon that labor source, and only certain classes of nonviolent inmates charged with lower level offenses are eligible for the selective program. They must then meet physical and other criteria.
In exchange, they get the opportunity for early release, by earning twice as many credits toward early release as inmates in other programs would otherwise earn, known as 2-for-1 credits. In February, the federal court overseeing California’s prison litigation ordered the state to expand this 2-for-1 program to some other rehabilitation programs so that other inmates who exhibit good behavior and perform certain work successfully would also be eligible for even earlier release.
As has been California’s practice in this litigation, California didn’t initially take the order that seriously. It continued to work toward reducing its prison population. In fact, the ballot initiative passed by voters in November to reclassify several nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors will go a long way toward achieving that goal. But it insisted that it didn’t have to do it the way the court wanted it to, because doing so could deplete the state’s source of inmate firefighters.
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