As wildfires rage across California and the death toll rises, hundreds of inmates in California prisons are risking their lives to be paid just $1 an hour to help fight the flames.
In Northern California, the Camp Fire erupted on November 8 in the hills north of Sacramento and became the most destructive wildfire in California’s history. As of Saturday night, it had taken 23 lives. At the same time, the Woolsey Fire is raging in Southern California and has killed two people.
California has a long history of using prison labor to fight wildfires, and this year is no different. At least 200 inmate firefighters from 16 different crews are among the thousands of people fighting the Camp Fire, according to local reporters.
Incarcerated individuals have been brought from six different conservation camps and are being paid far below the salary of non-incarcerated firefighters to help control the dangerous flames.
Inmate firefighters are also helping to fight the Southern California fires, according to reports which say that three tried to escape but were caught.
California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was not immediately available for comment, but the department has highlighted its role in fighting wildfires in the past. In July, the department tweeted that “inmate firefighters serve a vital role” in fighting the state’s wildfires.
“Today, more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, are battling wildfire flames throughout CA,” the department wrote.
Today, more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, are battling wildfire flames throughout CA. Inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire's spread. #CarrFire #FergusonFire #MendocinoComplex
— CA Corrections (@CACorrections) July 31, 2018
According to WBUR, inmates make up nearly 40 percent of California’s firefighters, saving the state $100 million per year.
The state’s practice of using inmate firefighters dates back to World War II, when the firefighter workforce across California was depleted because of the war.
According to local reporters, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has said it has “authority to operate 39 conservation camps statewide and 196 fire crews year round due to the cooperative efforts with the CDCR and the Division of Juvenile Justice.”
Across California, 29 counties operate 44 conservation camps for adult inmates, one for juvenile offenders, and three adult offender camps that house females. According to reports, the camps can house up to 4,522 adult inmates and 80 juveniles. A majority of the camps are managed by both the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Participation in the camps is voluntary, and minimum-custody inmates have to earn the right to work at the camps by having a nonviolent record. The inmates are trained by California officials and are paid, on average, $2 a day. That pay jumps up to $1 an hour when they are actively fighting fires.
By comparison, inmates in California typically earn between eight cents and 95 cents an hour.
Some inmates have said that fighting fires is a coveted job and allows incarcerated individuals to challenge themselves while spending time in nature. But the New York Times reported in August 2017 that the state’s roughly 250 female-inmate firefighters risk their lives for the volunteer position. The Times details the story of a 22-year-old inmate who was killed while fighting a fire less than two months before her three-year sentence was set to end.
For that type of grueling and dangerous work, many female inmates said the pay is insufficient.
‘‘The pay is ridiculous,’’ 35-year-old La’Sonya Edwards told The Times during a break from clearing a fire road. ‘‘There are some days we are worn down to the core. And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.’’
The article noted that “Edwards makes about $500 a year in camp, plus whatever she earns while on the fire line, which might add up to a few hundred dollars in a month; the pay for a full-time civilian firefighter starts at about $40,000.”
The job isn’t just dangerous for female inmates. In April, a male inmate firefighter in Northern California collapsed and died during a training hike during his first day on the job.
David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told WBUR that inmate firefighters are a “uniquely vulnerable part of the workforce.”
“When prisoners do volunteer to work it’s especially important that we make absolutely sure that they’re making a free and uncoerced and truly voluntary choice,” he said. “And that’s especially important when the work they’re doing is very dangerous, like fighting wildfires.”