Camden County officials are considering putting prison inmates to work as firefighters as a cost-cutting measure.
The program would put two inmates in each of three county firehouses. The prisoners (will they wear striped fire-fighter uniforms?) would respond to all emergencies, including residential fires, alongside the trained firefighters. The special program would be open to convicts charged with non-violent crimes, including drug offenses and robbery.
According to the details of the plan, the inmates would have no guards, but would be monitored by a surveillance system and by the non-criminal firefighters, who will undergo training to guard the inmates. It is estimated that the inmate firefighter program could save the county more than $500,000 a year.
Oh. Well, I guess that makes this irresponsible, reckless, offensive program all right, then!
No, it does not.
Whatever the courts may say or have said about putting prisoners to work in dangerous jobs, this is wrong:
1. It is unjust. The prisoners were not sentenced to death or injury, and subjecting them to either as a budget-balancing trick is an abuse of the prison system and the government’s power. Next: putting prisoners on the bomb squad and using them as decoys in police shoot-outs.
2. It is disrespectful. This is an insult to firefighters, an outrageous and ignorant statement that what they do can be handled not just by barely-trained amateurs, but barely-trained amateurs who can’t be trusted to walk free in the community.
3. It is irresponsible. Fire-fighting requires coordination and teamwork, and when they fail, houses burn and people get hurt or killed. Injecting prisoners into teams of professionals risks disrupting morale, efficiency and effectiveness in a crucial public service.
4. It is unfair. Firefighters responding to an emergency need to have all their attention focused on the life-and-death business at hand. Requiring a firefighter to do double duty, overseeing the conduct of two convicts who could be looking for an opportunity to bolt for freedom, is unfair and compromises both tasks.
We will see more such crack-brained ideas coming out of cash- strapped communities around the country, I’m sure. Few will be worse than this one, though.