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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.

Firefighting Inmates

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.”


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  1. Craig Anderson August 12, 2018

    They shouldn’t receive anything , their lucky to be given a chance to learn a trade………

  2. Betty Major August 12, 2018

    They probably want to help, but this is a disgrace—–slave labor

  3. A gutz-Deal August 15, 2018

    They’re ALL HEROS!! Thank you for being on the Frontline. Thank you for saving lives, homes, property. Please stay safe. Your lives are more valuable than ANYTHING out there. Regardless of what ANY “jack-Ass” says/thinks.

  4. Ray Rossman August 17, 2018

    Capitalism is great?

  5. Brian Elder August 17, 2018

    Maybe they’re working for room and board instead of tax payers paying for them? Liberals are such cry baby morons!

  6. Gen Tate-Jewett September 25, 2018

    WONDERFUL….Helping others…

  7. Rina Davis-van Tuil September 25, 2018

    Let them earn their keep!

  8. William Acevedo September 25, 2018

    How much is the jail getting per inmate workers?

  9. Shirley Hawkins September 25, 2018


  10. Susan Dow September 25, 2018

    Their choice

  11. Jeanette Gindler September 25, 2018

    Not right

  12. John Wykes September 25, 2018

    should be per hour ,hell even their lives are worth that ; if the court did not give them the death penalty and the state wants to them to lay down and die then they can give up two buck an hour.

  13. Chari Hayes September 25, 2018

    I can’t think that somehow this is right.
    After they get out can they get a job fighting fires?
    I think not.
    People who are not actually guilty and waiting on appeal could die in a fire.
    Even seasoned fire fighters have died this way.
    Even if they are guilty they shouldn’t be put in that kind of harms way.
    It just seems wrong, is what I’m trying to say.

  14. Tom Clayton September 25, 2018

    Free room and board

  15. Shirley Wilson September 26, 2018

    Sugar coated slavery


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