California Prison Inmates Battle Wildfires for $2 Per Day
About 3,400 prison inmates trained in firefighting situations are currently deployed to put out the ongoing, raging California wildfires, but they are paid just $2 per day. They get an additional $1 per hour when fighting active fires. Regular firefighters who are salaried state workers get paid $74,000 per annum excluding benefits.
The prison inmates work alongside regular California firefighters to put out wildfires in the state including the ongoing Carr fire, considered the largest in California till date.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, prison inmates who volunteer for the firefighting program are first trained for two weeks by expert firefighting trainers. They are drilled in fire safety protocols and simulated field conditions until they are proven enough to undergo physical fire situations to test their practical skills at putting out fires. As soon as inmates pass the required exams, they are dispatched off to reside in one of the 43 field camps scattered throughout California.
Inmates who have histories of arson, sexual crimes, kidnapping, gang-affiliation, escape attempts or are facing a life sentence are not allowed to participate in the program.
Firefighting inmates can earn time off their sentences for good behavior which is usually two days off for each active day served. Juvenile offenders can also participate in the program. Currently, 58 juvenile delinquents are enrolled in the firefighting program and deployed combating wildfires.
Vicky Waters of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told Newsweek that inmate firefighters are treated no different from regular firefighters.
“In an active fire, Cal Fire makes the determination for all crews based on the conditions, and the safety and security of all firefighters. In other words, inmate firefighters are not treated differently in the work they perform at the camps,” Waters said. “I just want to emphasize that we absolutely recognize the incredible job these firefighters are doing, particularly when lives and properties are at stake.”
Are Firefighting Inmates Fairly Paid?
However, some advocates accuse the government of not fairly paying inmates who put their lives on the line to put out dangerous fires. Lisa Graybill, Deputy Legal Director at Southern Poverty Law Center, stated that inmates are always eager to be deployed to fire situations without questioning the conditions under which they work, and their wages should reflect that.
“Look, the biggest, most important thing is putting out the fires,” Graybill told Newsweek. “And in my experience, prisoners are so eager for the chance to work and chance to demonstrate their rehabilitation that they’ll accept any work conditions. But they shouldn’t be exploited by the state. They’re putting their lives on the line like other California firefighters, and they should be paid fairly for a fair day’s work.”
Graybill also lamented the prospects for inmates who have exercised prowess for fighting fires and eventually get released from prison but still can’t find work despite their skill set. In California, almost all firefighters are required to be licensed emergency medical technicians, but convicted felons can’t receive such licenses.
For inmates that die in the course of fighting any raging fires, their loved ones do not receive any compensation while a regular fire worker would. Shawna Lynn Jones, a 22-year-old inmate, died fighting a wildfire in 2016 but her family did not receive any state compensation.
“These are very dangerous jobs,” Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told Newsweek. “Anytime you see prisoners doing work, they don’t have the same kind of job security or right to complain about unsafe conditions. They can’t quit or go work for different jobs. They either do the job as they’re told to do it or they go back to regular prison. This is a captive group of workers being asked to put their lives on the line.”
There is, however, another problem as explained by Graybill: “The danger for litigators like me is if we sue, the state could stop this program and that would be terrible because inmates want this opportunity.”