Prison labor in CA wildfires

Tyler Wong, THO Editor

California is no stranger to wildfires. It is often broadcasted on our local news station and every once in a while, we experience one nearby. We often dismiss these fires—a hazy day giving the sky a slight orange tint typically does not affect us in the comfort of our homes, if we are lucky enough to not be evacuated. However, there has been a growing concern over an aspect of wildfires that many of us do not consider in regard to these disasters—the unfair treatment of inmate firefighters.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, (CDCR) in cooperation with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has been using inmates since the 1940s to assist fires, floods and other natural or manmade disasters.

Inmates who are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses are voluntarily placed in temporary rehabilitation centers called conservation camps or fire camps and go out to augment regular firefighters when necessary. There are currently 44 Conservation Camps throughout 27 counties in California. Inmates are subject to exhausting work, carrying heavy bags, utilizing three-foot chainsaws and being exposed to potentially life-threatening environments.

In June, the CDDR put 12 conservation camps on lockdown after they were exposed to the coronavirus through outbreaks within the prison. Weeks later, the quarantine protocol had to be extended due to concerns that some had potentially been re-exposed to the virus, causing a large number of inmates to be unable to fulfill their firefighter position for a long period of time. In an attempt to reduce coronavirus outbreaks within facilities, the state granted an early release to thousands of inmates. One- fifth of wildfire fighters are inmates, and this early release of inmates led California Gov. Gavin Newsom to hire additional firefighters to make up for the loss in numbers.

Both criminal justice advocates and formerly incarcerated firefighters have expressed their disdain towards the minimal pay and extreme working conditions that inmate firefighters experience.

Inmates are paid between $2.90 and $5.12 a day and $1 per hour when fighting an active fire. On the other hand, the annual median pay for firefighters in California is approximately $74,000 dollars, not to mention the various benefits they receive from their employer. The cheap and minimal pay of inmates has saved the state and taxpayers an estimated amount between 90 and 100 million dollars a year.

We must question the ethics of this kind of labor system as the potential financial benefits of cheap prison labor might incentivize mass incarceration. Evidently, many are pushing for these prison programs to be replaced by means of proper public investments.

For some inmates, firefighting is both a sense of direction and a skill that has developed through extensive training and they hope to use it in the professional world. In fact, upon being released from prison, many former inmates apply for jobs as firefighters. Unfortunately, many have found that various barriers have been put in place to prevent them from doing so.

These barriers include being affected by the stigma that comes with being a former inmate or not having an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) licensing. With the regulating factors added in place that are preventing former inmates from even attempting to become firefighters, many are demanding change to make it easier for previously incarcerated individuals to land well-paying jobs.

Efforts are underway to mitigate these obstacles, which are preventing former convicts from having a second chance. On Sept. 11, Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2147 by Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, allowing former inmate firefighters to apply for the expungement of their criminal records, making it easier for them to obtain EMT licensing and continue with their career.

While some progress has been made, there is still a lot of room for improvement in areas such as dismantling the incentivization of mass incarceration by means of higher wages.

It is our duty as American citizens to continue to push for more reform in order for those currently incarcerated and former inmates will be able to live more fruitful and productive lives.