Wildfires are the new norm in California. As climate change has progressed over the past century, our state has gotten hotter and drier, and that translates into a lot of dead trees and chaparral to burn. In fact, all but five of the state’s 20 largest wildfires in recorded history have taken place since 2000, National Geographic reported in November.
Fighting these fires requires thousands of people. And that means state officials have increasingly looked to prison inmates for help. In 2017, 1,500 of the 11,000 personnel battling wildfires in California were inmates. One year later, that number had more than doubled to 3,900.
Since 2015, inmates from Orange County have participated in the state’s Fire Camp Program, though just five are doing so right now, according to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spokesperson. That number may go up soon; on May 21, the Orange County Board of Supervisors renewed its participation in the program, which now allows for 100 county inmates to be housed at the CDCR Fire Camp training facility and 100 inmates at Fire Camps at any given time.
The reason counties started sending inmates to fire crews dates back to 2011, when the Public Safety Realignment Act allowed for inmates convicted of nonviolent, non-sexual offenses to serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons. In 2014, Proposition 47 reclassified various drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, which decreased prison populations statewide.
“California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has found it increasingly difficult to supply qualified inmates to support the needs of the California State Fire Camps,” states a County of Orange staff report on the new agreement. “Realignment allows for local law-enforcement jurisdictions to contract sentenced inmates back to CDCR for the purpose of filling the inmate positions in the Fire Camp Program.”
In other words, CDCR needs cheap firefighters, and OC is offering them. “The Sheriff-Coroner Department (Sheriff) has determined that sending qualified inmates to CDCR for the purpose of working the Fire Camp Program is beneficial to Sheriff by assisting in alleviating inmate-population concerns,” according to the county staff report. “By supplying qualified inmates to these Fire Camps, Orange County assists in maintaining fire-suppression teams. In addition, these camps benefit the public at large, in that the inmates assigned to work the Fire Camps also provide assistance with community-service projects. Projects include clearing firebreaks, public-road maintenance, restoring historical structures, park maintenance, sand bagging and flood protection, and clearing fallen trees and debris.”
Photographer Brian Frank spent time with inmate firefighters during the 2017 wildfires in Northern California. “They work just as hard as any hand crew doing the dirtiest, hardest part of firefighting,” he said in an Oct. 23, 2017, photo essay for the Marshall Project. “They do the brutal, backbreaking part of digging fire lines and clearing fuel out of the path of a fire—the thankless work.”
It’s also dangerous. Since 1983, six inmates have died while fighting wildfires in California. Inmates on the fire lines are also exposed to higher risks for cancer and infectious diseases. In the summer of 2017, 10 inmates caught valley fever while working on a fire crew in Fresno, according to a Nov. 17, 2018, Time magazine story.
Still, officials say this will save the county money. “There is a cost to the Sheriff of $81 per inmate per day while in fire-suppression training at the Training Facility and $10 per day for each inmate housed in the Fire Camps,” states the staff report. “The duration of the Fire Suppression Training is 60 to 90 days, depending upon the condition of the inmate. Overall, there is a cost savings to the County because the cost to Sheriff to incarcerate an inmate in the Orange County jail system is approximately $115.49 per day.”
The use of inmate firefighters is also a windfall for the state. California prison-inmate firefighters are paid $2 per day, plus another $1 per day if they are on the fire line. (Compare this to the $3,000 to $4,000 Cal Fire firefighters make each month.) In 2018, Capitol Weekly reported that the estimated savings was $100 million per year.
For Dr. Lindsey Raisa Feldman, a socio-cultural anthropologist at the University of Memphis, there’s no question these kinds of wages are exploitative. Feldman, who has studied inmate firefighters extensively, even got certified to fight wildfires so she could observe them up close; over a two-year period in Arizona, she suited up and fought a dozen wildfires alongside them. “Prison labor is inherently exploitative,” Feldman says. “They make very little money, and it’s risky work. I am not a proponent of any labor that exploits individuals for such low pay. And often, these individuals would say, ‘Absolutely, we’re slave labor.’”
Inmate labor has grown dramatically in recent years. According to Pacific Standard, half of all the nation’s inmates—870,000 people—work while incarcerated. And prison labor has cost civilian workers their jobs. In 2012, CNN Money reported that Alabama-based uniform manufacturer American Apparel laid off 150 employees because the company kept losing contracts to Unicor, once known as Federal Prison Industries, which also makes uniforms. “We pay employees $9 [per hour] on average,” American Apparel executive Kurt Wilson told CNN Money. “They get full medical insurance, 401(k) plans and paid vacation. Yet we’re competing against a federal program that doesn’t pay any of that.”
That’s why the ACLU opposes the current wage structure for prison inmates. “The best way to protect prisoner workers is to treat them as much as possible like non-incarcerated employees,” David Fathi, the ACLU’s National Prison Project director, said in November 2018. “There’s no reason they shouldn’t be paid a real wage, protected by occupational health and safety laws, and compensated for injuries on the job. The hundreds of prisoners risking their lives on the fire lines deserve nothing less.”
At the same time, some good does come from the situation. For inmates, the work is a break from the monotony of prison life. And though their wages may be scant, inmates receive other compensation. “Inmates assigned to the Fire Camp Program receive additional custody credits, shortening the inmates’ custody stays,” states the county staff report. “Inmates assigned to the Fire Camps also receive counseling, educational and vocational training, such as sober living, college correspondence, general education diplomas, associates’ degrees and religious services.”
Ironically, the one benefit that seems to make fire crew work so attractive—work experience the inmate can use when he or she returns to civilian life—is largely closed to inmates. In California, most fire departments want prospective firefighters to have an EMT license, which you can’t get if you have a criminal record. There is some hope, in the form of Assembly Bill 1812, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2018. That bill makes it possible for those with criminal records to get an “emergency medical responder” license, which is at a lower level than EMT, though it’s unclear if that opens a path to employment for inmate firefighters.
During her research, Feldman found other advantages for inmates who joined fire crews, though the Arizona and California programs are different. For instance, Arizona’s program is much smaller than California’s and doesn’t have Fire Camps; inmates there go straight from the main yard to the fire lines. Arizona also doesn’t segregate its inmate firefighters by race, while California does. Most impressive, though, is that inmate firefighters in Arizona don’t wear coveralls that set them apart from their civilian counterparts, as they do in California. “If inmate firefighters walked into a restaurant, they would get rounds of applause,” Feldman says. “The people applauding them had no clue they were inmates.”
Feldman also observed what she called a “flattening of hierarchies” on the lines. In cases where inmates on the line may have more experience or knowledge of firefighting, they’re instructed to speak out if they ever observe their attendant correctional officers—who are also certified to fight wildfires—doing something they consider unsafe.
That being said, Feldman was appalled to discover that Arizona inmates assigned to fire crews were mostly fed the same low-calorie food found in prisons. “They’re operating at a caloric deficit, and that’s not acceptable,” she says.
According to Feldman, the recidivism rate for inmate firefighters in Arizona was very low, though that’s “purely anecdotal” because state officials there don’t track recidivism rates by prison labor program. California has maintained a steady 50 percent recidivism rate over the past decade, according to a state Auditor’s report released in January, but it also doesn’t track recidivism for Fire Camp inmates.
With inmate fire crews growing each year, there will be plenty of time for further study. “Prison labor will always expand,” Feldman says. “That won’t change, unless something massively changes in society. But with climate change, I don’t see this stopping.”
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.