Sep 08, 2020 |

The California wildfires make the case for investing in environmental and social justice

A line of firefighter suits hanging on hooks

Over the last three weeks, wildfires in California have burned almost 2.2 million acres of land and driven 40,000 people from their homes. We offer our deepest condolences to those who’ve suffered losses or been forced to evacuate their homes, and to those on the front lines who have been injured or killed in the line of duty. In recent years, the wildfire season has brought home the very real, human consequences of climate chaos. But this year the fires bring another injustice to the fore: the exploitative use of incarcerated people as firefighters.

California has used incarcerated people as firefighters since World War II. While typically more than 2,200 people in the criminal justice system participate in this work, this year less than 40% of that number are available to help contain the blazes because of COVID-19. Like prisons across the country, San Quentin has thousands of confirmed coronavirus cases; in fact, four out of the six prisons that train incarcerated firefighters are experiencing outbreaks. Faced with a dearth of firefighters, Cal Fire struggled to contain all the fires at once.

More prison labor, which many consider exploitative and unsustainable, may not be the best answer.  Incarcerated firefighters put their lives on the line. Despite the high risk of this work, incarcerated crews make only $2 to $5 per day, with an extra $1 per hour when actively fighting fires. While the California Legislature just passed a bill that will allow formerly incarcerated firefighters to earn the EMT license necessary to become civilian firefighters (previously they were prevented from obtaining full-time firefighting jobs when they re-entered the labor market due to their criminal record), there is no denying the system is still broken. Indeed, other states' systems are even more exploitative

With each passing year bringing more historic devastation due to climate chaos, this system will not repair itself. Which is why we all need to play our part in paving a just way forward. You may ask, “what can I do to make it better?” One simple thing - move your money. 

Finance underpins nearly every facet of our society. The choices we make around where we spend and keep our money are economic votes, and the way we cast them highlight what people and issues we value—or neglect. 

We all have a choice about where we put our money and what banks do with that money. In reality, your deposits don’t sit in a vault. That money is recirculated in the economy, either by banks investing in the people and products we see in the real economy or by participating in the financial economy of stocks, securities, and speculation. While a number of banks are now pledging not to use their deposits to finance private prisons thanks to grassroots-led divestment campaigns like Real Money Moves, too many banks still use their depositors’ money to fund environmental and social injustices, including mass incarceration. 

Due to well-documented abusive practices, minimal evidence of rehabilitation, and the criminal justice system’s failure to adequately address historic and present racial discrimination, Beneficial State Bank does not provide loans, products, or services to any entity involved in the prison industry. We were built on the principle of “Do No Harm” lending, and instead provide services working to reverse criminal injustice, mass incarceration, and punishment. 

If you’re tired of your money funding a broken system, you can do something about it. Values-based banks–of which there are many–demonstrate that a bank can generate positive social and environmental impact, and remain financially sustainable by making loans directly into the real economy

It’s time to collectively divest from ineffective policies that don’t move our communities, our people, or our planet forward. To determine whether your bank’s lending practices reflect your values, there are a few steps you can take: 

  1. Check your bank’s website. Do they provide information about the types of industries they are not financing? (If they don’t, they probably are invested in those industries.)
  2. Talk with your banker to learn how your bank is supporting local communities. Do they have products and services that are meant to serve the needs of people that big banks often neglect or exploit?
  3. See if your bank is a part of any certification program or associations that demonstrate their commitment to community economic development, such as certified B Corporations, Community Development Financial Institutions, or Community Development Credit Unions.

And lastly, learn more about the divestment work our equity owner Beneficial State Foundation engages in.

We can and should be using our money to build the world we want to see.


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