Prisoners Are Fighting Mudslides?

What else do inmate work crews do?

A huge wall of mud slid into La Conchita, Calif., on Monday, killing at least 10 residents of the hillside town. State and local rescue workers have been digging through a mass of debris up to 30 feet deep, with the help of specialized equipment, cadaver dogs, and 155 state prison inmates in orange jumpsuits. How often do prisoners help out when disaster strikes?

Inmate work crews frequently provide hard labor during emergencies. Although prisoners are usually enlisted for standard public works projects such as roadside cleanup, landscaping, and building renovations, state and local governments also recruit prisoners to deal with flooding, snowstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and forest fires. And prisoners don’t just help with natural disasters—inmates packaged emergency medical supplies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The inmates helping out in La Conchita come from the state of California’s “conservation camps,” where more than 4,000 inmates are housed and trained to fight forest fires. According to the Department of Corrections, “assignment to a conservation camp is a hard-won privilege” and provides the opportunity for prisoners to live without gun towers or security fences and to reduce the duration of their sentences by as much as two-thirds. Spots at the camps are reserved for physically fit offenders with no history of escape attempts, violent crimes, or—naturally—arson.

Not all programs run like California’s conservation camps, though: Inmate work programs operate around the country, but in many cases, corrections officials put together ad hoc crews to tackle specific, short-term projects. Wardens hoping to send out such crews must first demonstrate that they will not use cheap labor to take business or jobs away from the private sector. In disaster situations, the demand for labor far outweighs supply, so the decision to use prisoners is an easy one.

Inmates in any state system must apply in order to join crews that operate outside of their facilities. If accepted, they may get paid—often less than a dollar per hour—or they may be compensated with special jail privileges or sentence reductions. In general, the nonviolent offenders in local jails (of whom there are more than 10 million per year in the United States) are most likely to be used on a work crew.

These off-site work programs shouldn’t be confused with “prison industry programs,” which operate within correctional facilities. Since the 1930s, inmates have been working in prisons, manufacturing goods and providing services for companies like Federal Prison Industries. But modern volunteer work crews didn’t become widespread until the 1990s. Although modern prisoners volunteer for work crews and are compensated for what they do, some critics have charged that these programs are too reminiscent of chain gangs, which were largely phased out in the 1950s.

There’s no law against sending prisoners into dangerous areas, as long as the work is not compulsory. Nevertheless, corrections department work programs tend to keep low profiles. It’s possible that some people wouldn’t approve of giving prisoners the opportunity to do emergency relief work, says Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan. A convicted felon might then be viewed as a hero.

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Explainer thanks Dan Kahan, Tracey Meares of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice, Knut Rostad of the Enterprise Prison Institute, Joe Weedon of the American Correctional Association, and Steve Ingley of the American Jail Association.