$2 per Day—Rehabilitation or Exploitation? California Inmates Fight Dangerous Wildfires

Dec 3, 2018 | Community

S.E. Williams

The world-wide employment-related search engine Indeed, reported the average salary for a firefighter in California is $56,995 per year—32 percent above the national average.

According to Indeed, the California firefighter salary estimate was based on 100 salaries submitted anonymously by Firefighter employees, users, and collected from past and present job advertisements on the search engine’s website in the previous 36 months. Nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage for a firefighter nationally, is $24.97.

Now, compare the conservatively estimated $24.97 per hour rate to the $2per day, and one $1 per hour (when fighting active fires) rates paid to inmates who participate in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) volunteer fire fighting program.

Each year, according toCDCR, the program saves the state between $90 and $100 million by deploying inmates to help battle blazes that rage across the state—some perceive this as a prudent and cost-effective approach to expanding the ranks of its firefighters when needed, while keeping overhead and operating costs to a minimum; while others view it as “exploitation” of the prison inmates.

On the afternoon of July 31, the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) tweeted, “Today, more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, are battling wildfire flames throughout California.

According to the CDCR, inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire’s spread.

During an interview with CNBC, a CDCR official explained how inmates who participate in this program are evaluated individually to ensure that all those selected for the program are non-violent and willing to be team players. Participants must also have a “minimum custody” status.

Their primary duties focus on physical labor like cutting brush and trees to reduce fire danger, clearing flood channels and storm drains, and maintaining hiking trails. However, during wildfire events, they are exposed to the same risks as other fire fighters.

The felons who risk their lives battling ever more dangerous wildfires will probably never have an opportunity to become a fireman because they are rarely given a fair opportunity to deploy in the real world, the firefighting skills they acquired while in prison.

This is another glaring example of the injustice of America’s criminal justice system—while incarcerated they are good enough to fight (at far less than minimum wage) along-side firemen when needed but upon release from prison, doors to most fire departments are closed to them regardless of the experience they earned while incarcerated.

Admittedly, these inmates have been found guilty of a crime but to participate in the inmate fire program their convictions cannot include arson, sexual crimes, kidnapping or gang-related offenses.

As global warming continues to fuel massive wildfire events up and down the state, some are beginning to question whether these fires are providing an added incentive for the state to keep the prisons filled.


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