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California May Change Rules So They Can Keep Fighting Fires With Prison Labor

Inmates help fight a fire near Sheep Ranch, CA, in September CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICH PEDRONCELLI, FILE
Inmates help fight a fire near Sheep Ranch, CA, in September CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICH PEDRONCELLI, FILE

A surge in the number and intensity of wildfires in the American west is taxing both California’s firefighting corps and federal forestry budgets. But now the state’s habit of relying on incarcerated felons to fight its fires is running afoul of court orders forcing California to reduce prison overcrowding.

California has long relied on prison inmates to supplement its professional wildfire-fighting crews, employing nearly 4,000 individual prisoners alongside about 6,000 professionals this year alone. But the state is now a few years into an effort to ease severe overcrowding in its prisons by releasing low-level offenders early. The firefighting program is supposed to be open only to non-violent offenders, which means the same category of people who have been providing the state nearly-free labor in fire season is shrinking rapidly.

The resulting shift in the makeup of the overall prison population may begin to bleed into the firefighting work-release system.

State incarceration and firefighting officials are looking to loosen the eligibility rules for the work-release program so that those convicted of violent crimes can also participate. The program would still only accept inmates with model personnel records during their time behind bars, corrections spokesman Bill Sessa told the Sacramento Bee. “They’ll be evaluated on how they are now, not how they were (when they were convicted),” Sessa said.

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Inmate firefighters save California a lot of money. The work-release program pays them between $1.45 and $3.90 per day, far below the minimum wage for entry-level firefighters. Even when the crews are pulling hazard pay while on an active fire line battling a blaze, their wage only jumps to $1 an hour. A state corrections site estimates the program saves California “more than $80 million annually on average,” but the California corrections official who supervises the fire camps told Buzzfeed last year that the figure is more like $1 billion per year.

It would be relatively easy to find $80 million to replace inmates with professionals in a state budget of nearly $170 billion, but finding a billion dollars a year in a state that only recently climbed out of a $26 billion hole would be far more challenging. Firefighters’ union leader Mike Lopez told the Bee that this should be an opportunity to hire more entry-level firefighters, but the state “just looks at dollars and cents because they’re cheap.”

State officials resistant to releasing prisoners have even argued that the state can’t afford to lose the cheap labor inmates provide, causing Attorney General Kamala Harris to worry that people will view California’s criminal justice system as one of indentured servitude targeted at already-marginalized communities.

Despite the low pay and potentially dangerous work, slots with the program are reportedly coveted. Inmate fire crews operate from wilderness camps and spend far more time outdoors than they might at a traditional prison. The crews backstop professional firefighters, cutting and clearing brush in lines called firebreaks that are meant to help contain wildfires by denying them fuel. Establishing a containment line of inflammable exposed dirt is essential to extinguishing a raging forest fire. It’s also difficult work on terrain inaccessible to heavy machinery.

Prison officials have had plenty of time to anticipate how early release rules would affect firefighting. The Supreme Court ordered California to mitigate its prison crowding problem back in 2011, upholding a lower court’s mandate that the state reduce its prison population from 175 percent of the system’s capacity to a mere 137.5 percent.

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In general, the divide between violent and non-violent offenders is a somewhat synthetic one. Many drug crimes are considered “inherently violent” for categorization purposes within the system, meaning that a significant number of “violent” drug offenders were never convicted of actual violence. Meaningful reductions in America’s immense prison population will be impossible if reforms are limited to the “low-level non-violent” offenders where political rhetoric often focuses. Such rhetoric implies that anyone deemed “violent” is a lost cause — something Quartz’s Noah Berlatsky called “the most pernicious ideology behind the incarceration binge” — even though violent offenders are perfectly capable of redeeming themselves later in life.

Besides, convicts deemed “violent” were finding their way onto fire crews even before early releases began to reshape the state’s prison population. An investigative report on the program by the Redding Record-Searchlight in 2011 found that one in five firefighter inmates had been convicted of a violent crime before passing through the fire program’s behavioral screening.

In theory, wildfire season in California should be winding down. But it’s been an atypical year for fires in the west, thanks in large part to the most severe drought in 1,200 years. Before the traditional fire season had even begun this year, California was already on pace for a 70 percent jump in wildfires. The jump in both the number and the severity of the fires is attributable to climate change, scientists say.

Update:

On Wednesday, California officials said they are abandoning the proposal to expand the firefighting program to new categories of offenders. Instead, they will extend eligibility to inmates with up to seven years remaining on their sentences. Previously the system was only open to those with five or fewer years left to serve.