Thousands of acres of wildfires are raging across California, but roughly 4,000 of the firefighters tasked with putting them out are state prisoners.
The United States locks up more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world, with roughly 2.4 million Americans behind bars, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Of those 2.4 million incarcerated people, 1.36 million of those were housed in state prisons. California is one of 28 U.S. states with “three strikes” laws, which impose much longer sentences on repeat offenders. As long as these laws remain in place, there will always be growing numbers of inmates with increasingly longer sentences to serve.
While the inmate population in California has significantly declined in the last decade, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) estimates there are roughly 129,000 people in its prisons as of June 2017 (slightly less than the 157,900 prisoners incarcerated in Texas). According to Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the CDCR, anywhere from 3,800 to 4,000 inmates within the Golden State are under joint supervision of both the CDCR and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to help 6,000 more Cal Fire employees battle wildfires currently raging across California.
In a phone interview, Sessa told Grit Post that prisoners deployed to fight fires are part of a state conservation program that’s been in place since the late 1940s. Inmates who volunteer for the program can apply to be moved to one of 43 work camps in the hills, where they’re given 4 to 5 weeks of training by a veteran fire captain with Cal Fire. From there, inmate firefighters are sent to clear brush and trees to create “fire breaks” in order to prevent wildfires from spreading, and remain in the camps until they’re paroled.
“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. “We don’t pick everyone who volunteers, but everyone we put in the camp has volunteered for that duty.”
Compensation for inmate firefighters is, according to Sessa, $2 a day for each day they’re in training camp, and $1 an hour when they’re out in the field.
“The inmates in the fire camps, are, by prison standards, very well compensated,” Sessa said. “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.”
However, Cal Fire local 2881 president Mike Lopez stressed to Grit Post that the inmate firefighters are only trained for certain tasks like removing potential fuel for fires from roadways and other high-risk areas. Inmates in the camps are not tasked with conducting rescues, driving fire engines, piloting planes to drop flame retardant, serving as EMTs, or any of the other tasks professional firefighters are given. Lopez said the inmate firefighters serve the role of freeing up professional Cal Fire employees to do the more complex firefighting work.
“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 said in a phone interview.
However, because only eight percent of the calls Cal Fire receives each year are forest fire-related, Cal Fire utilizes the inmates in the program throughout the year to do conservation work. Sessa said the 4,000 inmates are put to work each day throughout the state, whether there are fires to put out or not.
“[Inmates] maintain hiking trails, they do clearing for flood control, they do sandbagging during a flood. There’s any number of conservation projects they might work on,” Sessa said.
Lopez maintained that inmates “aren’t taking our jobs,” because the jobs that Cal Fire employees do are vastly different than the jobs the inmates do. But with inmates fighting fires during fire season and doing conservation work the rest of the year for just $1 an hour, it’s worth noting that forest and conservation workers in California can earn anywhere between $51,720 a year and $62,219 a year for similar work, according to Salary.com.
To be fair, California isn’t alone in its utilization of prisoners to do work that typically pays a full-time salary. As a 2015 article from Cato Institute legal associate Randal John Meyer noted, 37 states have allowed for prison labor to be used by private corporations mounting operations inside state prisons, often paid just a fraction of what salaried workers would make in those jobs:
In Georgia and Texas, the maximum wage in dollars per day is $0. In Nevada, prisoners make $0.13 an hour. The average wage is between $0.93 a day and $4.93 a day—less than an hour of work at minimum wage. Conservative estimates put the value of output from prison labor at $2 billion annually.
On top of the wage disparity, Lopez said inmates who do complete their sentences are rarely given the chance to become professional firefighters in their respective cities, due to stringent criminal background requirements imposed by most municipalities, and must pass rigid training requirements that professional firefighters undergo.
“[Inmates becoming full-time firefighters] has happened and it does happen, but it’s not very frequent because of their background,” Lopez said. “The firefighters that have been hired, some have made it through the system, but it’s a very small percentage.”
Both Sessa and Lopez told Grit Post that in the program’s 70-plus year history, there have not been any complaints from California Professional Firefighters — the state’s official firefighters’ union — about competing with prison labor.
“There’s a complete separation from a firefighter in the professional sense of the word versus an inmate firefighter,” Lopez said. “An inmate firefighter assists in firefighting issues around this state to really do a wildland, one-dimensional firefighting mission.”
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.