Prisoners Are Fighting California’s Wildfires on the Front Lines, But Getting Little in Return

November 1, 2019, 4:03 PM UTC

As multiple deadly wildfires in California, stoked by dry weather and 65 MPH winds, threaten to destroy thousands of homes across the state, 2,150 prison inmates are battling on the front lines to tame the flames. 

The prisoners earn between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, plus an additional $1 per hour during active emergency for their potentially life-threatening efforts. The firefighters they work alongside earn an average of $91,000 each year before overtime pay and bonuses. 

The Conservation Camp Program, officially established in 1945, is estimated to save California taxpayers about $100 million each year. Prisoners work on hand crews, constructing firebreaks by using tools like chainsaws and picks. During active fires, they work for 24-hour periods followed by 24 hours of rest. 

While the pay is low, there are other perks and incentives for the more than 3,000 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prisoners who volunteer to work in the 43 fire camps around the state (that number is higher than active firefighters because other inmates stay back and care for the camps). During active fires they earn about $27 each day, much better than other prison jobs that would earn them $0.08 to $0.37 per hour. They also have fresher food, more freedom and, perhaps most importantly, receive two days off their prison sentence for every one day served (commonly known as 2-for-1).

Over the past 75 years, inmate firefighters have become so essential to the state’s ability to effectively deal with wildfire season that in 2014, California fought court orders to apply those 2-for-1 release credits to other rehabilitation work programs. They argued that no one would want to join the fire camp if they could get the same perks doing other, low risk jobs.

“Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought,” the Attorney General’s office, then led by Senator and 2020 candidate Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wrote. “The extension of 2-for-1 credits to all [minimum security facility] inmates would likely make fire camp beds even more difficult to fill, as low-level, non-violent inmates would choose to participate in the [Minimum Support Facility] program rather than endure strenuous physical activities and risk injury in fire camps.”

An affidavit from Department of Corrections official Vimal Singh also stated that extending early release credits would “deplete the fire population.”

All inmate firefighters join camps voluntarily and they are free to leave at any time, but asking prisoners to put their lives at risk for reduced sentencing is sticky moral ground said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. 

In Fathi’s experience, the majority of prisoners he’s encountered want to work to break up the monotony of prison life and be productive, but, “prison is a uniquely coercive environment,” he said. “There is very little in prison that is truly voluntary. There is a power differential between prisoners and their captors and employers that creates a significant risk of exploitation and abuse and we need to be alert to that.” 

Prisoners should not volunteer to fight dangerous fires “simply because the alternative is being locked in a prison cell,” added Fathi. 

Over the past 35 years, six incarcerated firefighters have died as a result of injuries sustained while actively working on containing a fire, according to Alexandra Powell, public information officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But injuries abound.

More than 1,000 inmate firefighters were sent to the hospital between 2013 and 2018, according to data obtained by TIME. Incarcerated firefighters were four times more likely to suffer from object-related injuries like cuts and broken bones than other firefighters and eight times more likely to suffer from smoke and particulate inhalation than other firefighters. 

There is no available data on whether prisoners suffer from smoke-inhalation related heart disease and cancers at elevated rates as other firefighters do in the years after their service, but unlike their unincarcerated coworkers, inmate firefighters do not receive extended health benefits or pensions upon retirement.

Powell says that during large scale wildfires there is a medical emergency response team waiting at base camp to provide assistance and that all prisoners are trained in basic first aid. Prisoners are also entitled to certain workers’ compensation benefits for injuries sustained during work.

“Prisoners are largely unprotected by the occupational health and safety laws that protect all other workers from dangerous working conditions,” said Fathi. “They’re not covered by OSHA, they can’t unionize to bargain for safer working conditions. When you put all of those together it makes prisoners a uniquely vulnerable workforce compared to everyone else who fights fires or does any other work in this society.”

The prisoners who work at fire camps often find that they’re unable to put their skills to use when they’re released. The majority of firefighting jobs in the U.S., and most of the 900 fire departments in California, require employees to obtain an Emergency Medical Technician or paramedic license. In California, the majority of convicted felons can’t obtain those licenses until they’ve been out of prison for 10 years. 

The high risks of the job combined with a lack of actual career opportunities at the end of prisoners’ sentences have led to a steady decline in fire camp volunteers. An internal CALFire and California Department of Corrections memo obtained by Earther shows that the number of prisoners working in camps have declined by at least 1,000 people over the past 12 years and that camps are not operating near full capacity. 

The organizations placed the blame on efforts to limit the prison population in California through what they called “prison reduction strategies.” Another memo claimed that “the availability of offenders volunteering for camps is extremely low; there is no incentive.” 

Two memos (one from 2015 and the other from this year) suggested paying prisoners fighting fires $2 per hour instead of $1, which has been the rate of pay for more than 40 years. The pay increase, the 2015 memo reasoned, would still save the state $26.4 million per unit that could be staffed with inmate labor instead of hired firefighters. Less inmate fire crews, said the memo, “would result in the reliance on federal, county and private fire crews during periods of high fire activity. These costs per 24 hour shift range from four to eight times higher than the cost of a comparable inmate crew.” 

The lack of volunteers also leads to aggressive recruiting techniques. Dennis Dumas, who was charged with second-degree burglary and robbery received a three-year prison sentence. He served at the fire camp in Norco, Calif., between 2005 and 2007 and says he was approached by an officer and asked to join the camp immediately after being processed. He knew he didn’t have to agree to join, but he also didn’t know much else about the program. 

There have been recent efforts to make up for the lack of job opportunities. The California Department of Corrections has recently partnered with a firefighter certification and training program in Ventura County to create an 18-month program that provides advanced training to former convicts. The $26.6 million program will train 80 parolees, but does not grant them an EMT license. Still, two participants have been offered employment with CAL Fire, said Powell. Another found work with an environmental clean-up agency.

California Assemblymember Eloise Reyes is attempting to change the rules so that prisoners’ fire careers don’t end upon release. She’s introduced a bill that would allow former convicts to join the California Firefighter Joint Apprenticeship program. The legislation is currently pending but could come to a vote as early as January. 

“Reyes believes that a criminal conviction should not be a life sentence, but rather that folks that have made mistakes, and demonstrated commitment and effort to rehabilitation should have the same opportunities as everyone else,” said an official who works for Reyes.  

But similar bills have been shot down in years prior, and the California Professional Firefighters, a powerful union with a membership of more than 30,000, has spoken out against the plan. 

“Anybody who works as a line-of-duty firefighter is required to be an EMT, and paramedic training standards and requirements are appropriately high because they’re providing medical assistance and directly interacting with people in their homes. Lives are at risk,” said Carroll Wills, communications director of the California Professional Firefighters. “These inmate crews work as hand crews, they aren’t involved in direct response, medical care or frontline responsibilities,” he said before adding that there are already dozens to hundreds of applications for every open firefighting position in the state. 

The California Professional Firefighters did support an initiative to provide education and job training in disaster relief and forest management to former members of fire camp through the California Conservation Corps. The bill was signed into law by former California Governor Jerry Brown in 2019. Another bill, passed in 2018, would allow some former inmates to obtain EMT licenses seven years after their release.

Still, Dumas says he appreciates his time serving on the frontlines and credits his training with his current success as a fitness business owner. “this wasn’t something I expected going into the prison system, and it was a big privilege to do something so rewarding,” he said. “We would drive through the communities after fighting a fire and there would be people with signs thanking the inmate firefighters. To be able to experience all of that while you’re supposed to be serving a punishment is a really unique and amazing opportunity.” 

Dumas used his time at the camp to improve himself physically. He lost 100 pounds in about six months, he said. But no one at the camp monitored his health during that period and the “nutrition was poor,” he said. Dumas also said that many of his fire camp cohorts were actively recovering from drug addictions.  

Dumas’ time in the program came to an early end when he got in a fight with a civilian fire captain over a safety concern. He said the captain put him in a dangerous situation where he was so close to flames that his backpack melted and separated him from his crew. When he became aggravated with the captain he was removed from the camp and put into solitary confinement. 

California has the highest recidivism rate in the nation—62% of the inmates released in 2018 were assessed as at risk of becoming reoffenders, according to a state report. 

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