As fires raged across California last month, more than 1,500 inmates traded their prison issue jumpsuits for flame retardant gear and faced unrelenting flames, smoke and ash.
These men, women, and teenagers all worked tirelessly as the world around them burned. For only $2 a day plus $1 an hour.
They risk their lives, safety and well-being. They are badass, and their lifesaving work should be honored with better pay for starters.
The inmates are trained as part of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Conservation Camp program in conjunction with the California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation. They operate out of 43 camps across the state that house more than 4,300 inmates and wards, of those 2,600 of those are trained to work fire-line.
Out of the 43 camps there are 196 fire crews, including some for female inmates and juvenile offenders.
According to the Department of Corrections, to be eligible to serve in the program are those inmates that are classified as “minimum custody.” They must be sentenced to a minimum of 10 months and cannot have history of gang-affiliation, sexual offenses, arson or escape using force or violence. To participate in the program the inmates must volunteer. Those who volunteer must undergo extensive physical, intellectual, and psychological screenings before they join the program.
The fire-line trained inmates go to places where fire rages and clear out vegetation in order to prevent the fire from spreading. They regularly have to engage flames directly in what is called front-attack when flames are moving too quickly.
These fire crews perform more than three million hours of emergency response across fires, mudslides, floods and search and rescue operations according to Cal Fire. A study done by WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, estimates the inmate fire crews save the state $100 million per year.
For days and weeks at a time, these people are not inmates, they are just firefighters. Residents whose homes are kept safe by the inmate crews do not shrug off gratitude because these people had a conviction.
In fact in 2017, after a Santa Rosa neighborhood was kept safe by a group of incarcerated firefighters the residents lined up to thank and hug the men. Hugs and recognition, are great,but simply not enough.
While the inmates do get non-financial perks including conjugal visits, more comfortable housing and extra time for days served, the risks outweigh the reward.
Putting their lives on the line is not hyperbole, in 2016 Shawna Lynn Jones, an inmate firefighter was killed when she was struck by a boulder while fighting a brush fire in Malibu. She had only two months left on her sentence.
For California to turn a profit on the backs of human beings who are risking their lives is wrong. We need to do more for these people who turn their mistakes into a chance at redemption, and an opportunity to do something good. If these people are going to continue providing a life-saving service to California then they deserve to be incentivized as such. The state should also arrange life insurance policies for all inmates who work the front lines. Most importantly, these people need to make more than $1 an hour as they brave scorching fires.