State Loses Argument that Loss of Cheap Labor Is Reason Not to Parole Prisoners

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The state of California does not want to give up cheap prison labor, particularly firefighters, and has been arguing in court that that is a good reason not to follow court orders to offer more inmates work-earned parole.

Los Angeles Times reporter Paige St. John slipped one sentence about the state’s oral argument before a federal appellate three-judge panel into a story last Friday that caught some people’s attention. She wrote: “Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.”

A couple days later, Harris told BuzzFeed she was “shocked” to read that in the newspaper and would talk to her staff about what was going on: “I just need to find out what did we actually say in court.”

Federal judges have been banging on California for years to reduce the population of its inhumane, overcrowded prisons and have met resistance at every turn. Slowly, the state has conjured up policies that get the least dangerous prisoners out of prison quicker, if only into overcrowded county jails. That hasn’t gotten the whole job done.

The judges told the state to implement an accelerated program of rewarding inmates who work in prison with quicker parole. The state argued that inmates were a key component of its forest firefighting force and they couldn’t afford the loss of manpower as fire season approached. So they were allowed to deny the credits to firefighters.

The state was primarily arguing about how the loss of the 4,400-man contingent would devastate its firefighting capability, but BuzzFeed did the math and figured the $1 billion saved by paying inmates just $2 a day might be part of the equation.

No one from ThinkProgress was in the courtroom Friday to hear what the state said to the judges, but they linked to pleadings (pdf) made before the judicial panel in September. The attorneys argued that extending the credit-for-work to nonfirefighting inmates would not only encourage transfers from the harder-working firefighter group, it would deplete all the other cheap-labor ranks. Those losses, they argued, would be irreplaceable.

The plaintiffs in the case ridiculed the assertion (pdf):

“Defendants baldly assert that if the labor pool for their garage, garbage and city park crews is reduced, then ‘CDCR would be forced to draw-down its fire camp population to fill these vital MSF positions.’ That is a red herring; Defendants would not be ‘forced’ to do anything. They could hire public employees to perform tasks like garbage collection, garage work and recycling.”

But that would cost money and waste a captive workforce.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California AG “Shocked” to Learn Her Office Wanted to Keep Eligible Parolees in Jail to Work (by Adam Serwer, BuzzFeed)

California Tells Court It Can’t Release Inmates Early Because It Would Lose Cheap Prison Labor (by Nicole Flatow, ThinkProgress)

Federal Judges Order California to Expand Prison Releases (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

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