California Wildfires: Inmates Are Risking Their Lives Working Alongside Firefighters for $2 a Day

As California firefighters work to contain the largest wildfire in state history, they find themselves working their 24-hour shifts alongside a group of unlikely partners: 3,400 inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The groups work in unison, but while salaried California firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $74,000 plus benefits, inmates earn just $2 per day with an additional $1 per hour when fighting an active fire.

Inmates without histories of arson, sexual crimes, kidnapping, gang-affiliation, escape attempts or facing a life sentence are allowed to volunteer for the firefighting program and are trained for two weeks in fire safety and field conditions before taking a physical exam. Once the exam is passed, prisoners are sent to live in one of 43 low-security field camps throughout the state. Juvenile delinquents are also eligible for the program, at least 58 youth offenders are currently fighting active wildfires.

“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,” Vicky Waters, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told Newsweek on Tuesday. “I just want to emphasize that we absolutely recognize the incredible job these firefighters are doing, particularly when lives and properties are at stake.”

An inmate also earns extra time off of their sentence for good behavior, typically two days off for each day served. These low-cost firefighters save California an estimated $80 million a year.

“Look, the biggest, most important thing is putting out the fires,” Lisa Graybill, Deputy Legal Director at Southern Poverty Law Center 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.”

After years of training and fighting fires, said Graybill, an inmate who is released is typically unable to put their skills to work upon release. Nearly all firefighters in California are required to be licensed emergency medical technicians, but convicted felons are typically barred from receiving said licenses. Additionally, families of fallen inmate firefighters like 22-year-old Shawna Lynn Jones, who died fighting a blaze in 2016, don’t receive compensation the way a normal firefighter’s family would.

“Many people who are incarcerated have families on the outside who are relying on them to come home and be their breadwinner again. If anything does happen to them, will there be provision for their families and will they be taken care of in any way?” asked Graybill.

Inmates do recognize that there are perks to the job. Their outdoor camps allow for more freedom. The food is better and grown in on-site gardens. Families are allowed to use barbecue pits for their visits and can often spend the night in nearby cabins.

Still, “the pay is ridiculous,’’ inmate La’Sonya Edwards, told The New York Times. ‘‘There are some days we are worn down to the core,’’ she said. ‘‘And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.’’

“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.”

It’s a tricky road to navigate, said Graybill. “The danger for litigators like me is if we sue, the state could stop this program and that would be terrible because people want this opportunity.”

But if prisoners are being trusted to put out fires, save lives, and handle potentially dangerous weapons like axes and chainsaws with minimal oversight, “maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place,” said David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.