The California Department of Corrections made a stunning admission — youth prisoners are being put in harms way to fight wildfires raging across the state.
In a tweet sent last week, the official account for California’s prison system stated that thousands of prison inmates — including 58 inmates under the age of 18 — are on the ground fighting the multiple wildfires that have been burning in various regions of the Golden State.
Today, more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, are battling wildfire flames throughout CA. Inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire's spread. #CarrFire #FergusonFire #MendocinoComplex
— CA Corrections (@CACorrections) July 31, 2018
The use of inmates to combat wildfires is nothing new in California. As California Department of Corrections (CDOC) spokesman Bill Sessa told Grit Post last year, the program has been in place since the late 1940s. According to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, the tradition of using inmates for countering wildfires dates back to the World War II era, when the state relied on prisoners due to most of California’s men being out of the country, drafted to fight the war overseas. However, this marks the first time CDOC has stated on official social media channels that some of the inmate firefighters are minors.
To be clear, the inmates aren’t directly spraying water on fires, but rather doing the hard physical labor associated with minimizing the spread of fire, like clearing brush and trees. In 2017, Sessa told Grit Post that all of the inmates on the ground volunteer for the job, and that prisoners who volunteer have to pass rigorous screening.
“No one is assigned to the camp. All of the inmates who are there are selected because of their teamwork ability, their good behavior while they are in an institution, and they also survive some other screening that we do,” Sessa said in a phone interview. “We don’t pick everyone who volunteers, but everyone we put in the camp has volunteered for that duty.”
Pay for the prisoners fighting wildfires is remarkably low, with inmates making just $2/daily while training for the job, and just $1/hour while on the job.
“The inmates in the fire camps, are, by prison standards, very well compensated,” Sessa said when defending the low pay. “It pays far better than any other job they could get behind an electrified fence… [Inmates] use the money they earn from being firefighters to pay victim restitution if they have a court order to do that, and they can use that funding to get back on their feet once they leave on parole.”
In a separate phone interview during last year’s wildfire season, Cal Fire local 2881 president Mike Lopez said full-time, non-inmate firefighters do the more high-risk work like piloting planes over active fires to drop fire suppressant, driving fire trucks, or conducting rescues. He added that when not helping to fight wildfires, prisoners in the program do conservation work like maintaining hiking trails and flood mitigation. However, full-time forest and conservation workers in California can make more than $60,000/year, according to data from Salary.com.
“The origins of [the work camp program] are for the inmate firefighter who is a wildland, one-dimensional firefighter, to do the hard manual labor to do the kind of tasks that you wouldn’t want to give a professional firefighter,” Lopez told Grit Post in 2017.
Wildfires continue to burn in California. The Mendocino Complex Fire in the Northern part of the state has burned more than 273,000 acres as of this writing, making it the second-largest wildfire in state history.
Nick Jewell is a freelance political writer, and a proud resident of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.