It’s not exactly the chain gangs of the early 1900s, but I wouldn’t blame you for making the comparison. Thanks in part to California’s historic drought, the state is frequently facing some of the worst wildfires in its history, and thousands of prison inmates are helping fight the fires.
More than 4,000 low-level felons and other inmates from state prisons make $2 and up a day as firefighters in California. Through their cheap labor, the cash-strapped state is saving $80 million in firefighting costs and raising the concerns of prison advocacy groups.
The savings, watchdogs say, could be providing a cynical incentive for lawmakers to slow efforts to reform California’s overcrowded prison system.
The program, which started in 1946, requires prisoners who opt in to live in one of around 40 facilities called “conservation camps,” which was probably named by the worst public relations firm in the world. The inmates receive at least one month of training, which is hopefully enough to learn how to kill gigantic blazes properly. There are some restrictions as to who can apply for the positions, Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), told The Daily Beast. Inmates cannot have been convicted of first-degree murder or arson.
You can imagine why they’d skip the latter.
Inmates can face massive fires, sometimes as high as 100 feet tall, and there have been deaths in the past.
“There have been fatalities over the years, but we haven’t had any recent fire line-involved deaths with inmates,” Tolmachoff said. She said these inmates can be as young as 18 years old, and they’re typically right at the frontline of the fire. Roughly half of the firefighters CAL FIRE uses are inmates, she said.
Those who are accepted to the program perform a critical service for a state that is fighting so many fires it sometimes runs out of its budget to fight them before the fire season ends.
And even though it costs nearly $50,000 a year to keep a prisoner locked up in California, there are signs the government has become so dependent on their labor that reforms needed to reduce the massive prison population are being put off.
Late last year, lawyers for California Attorney General Kamala Harris caused a controversy after they argued against an early prison-release program, because they believed it would “severely impact fire camp participation.” Harris distanced herself from those comments after a public uproar.
Those comments set off warning bells for advocates like David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, who said while some jobs in prison, though low pay, can help a prisoner learn a skill in a relatively safe setting that might benefit them after they are released—the chance of government abuse with a dangerous job like firefighting is high.
“Jobs for prisoners can be a very positive thing, but given the vast power inequality between prisoners and their employers, there’s a real potential for exploitation and abuse,” Fathi told The Daily Beast.
He added that he suspected prisoners who decide to fight fires might not be fully aware of the risks involved, including possible long-term health risks.
Fathi said the statements made by the Attorney General’s lawyers might also provide a clue as to the motivations of some state officials.
“It is a window into a thinking of… some people that prisoners do exist to be used as a pool of cheap labor, and [they] want to maintain that pool of cheap labor,” he said. “That is cause for concern. We should lock people up to protect public safety, not to provide a pool of cheap labor for the government.”
This isn’t the first time potential prison reforms have made the state government nervous.
Lynne Tolmachoff, the CAL FIRE spokesperson, said the 2014 passage of Prop 47 reduced the prison population by redefining certain nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors, instead of felonies, and sparked worries that it would deplete the firefighting program.
“Prop 47 obviously… decreased the number of inmates we had, and that was one thing that was possibly concerning for us, but it ended up not having a big enough effect,” she said.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the criminal justice reform group The Sentencing Project, sees both sides of the argument.
He told The Daily Beast he likes the fact inmates doing a good deed like fighting fires might humanize them to the public and improve the image of prisoners, but there’s also the risk of the state relying too heavily on this population.
Mauer explained that while certain prisoner jobs like being a lunch cook are easy to fill, firefighting takes some skill and specific qualities in a person.
“It would be extremely disappointing if anyone were being kept in prison because they’re performing this function,” he said.
Bill Sessa, an information officer for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, rejected the idea officials would choose to keep people in prison to maintain prison labor practices. He said the state has reduced its prison population significantly in the past decade, and it hasn’t stopped the program yet.
“The state prison system has thousands of inmates who are eligible for fire camp who have not exercised the option of volunteering for this duty,” he said.
Sessa believes it is beneficial for inmates to become part of the program. “Inmate firefighters earn two days off their sentence for each day they are in a fire camp,” he said, and it’s the highest paying prison job.
Beyond safety concerns and concerns with the motivations behind this program, Fathi noted that the massive pool of cheap labor coming from prisons hurts unions and associations that fight for the rights and adequate compensation of firefighters.
“Unions have argued for years that prison labor undercuts the strength and bargaining power of [non-prison] labor. It looks like, in California at least, their fears are somewhat justified, Fathi said. It’s hard to argue for higher pay when some people are doing similar things for next to nothing.
Mauer, of The Sentencing Project, agreed.
“If [prison labor] is replacing workers who would otherwise be doing it on the outside,” he said. “I think it’s problematic.”