As historic fires blaze across nearly 900 square miles of Northern California, officials have been desperately seeking relief and resources to help fight the flames. So far, over ten thousands firefighters have been brought in from around the country to assist with the fires, as well as hundreds of firefighters from American Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.
California officials have also brought in over 2,000 prison inmates to help contain the blazes.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) recently boasted about the use of prison labor for firefighting on Twitter: “Today, more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, are battling wildfire flames throughout CA. Inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire’s spread.”
The program helps safe California $100 million a year. The inmates are paid $1 to $2 a day and work up to 24 hour shifts. The firefighting jobs are given to non-violent inmates who earn a minimum-custody status through good behavior behind bars and excludes arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang affiliates, and those serving life sentences. Inmates must also meet demanding physical standards to get the gig.
There are approximately 3,700 inmates in the program, which on any given year can make up a third of the state’s firefighting personnel. When the inmates aren’t needed to fight fires, they work on community-service projects like park maintenance, reforestation, and fire and flood protection.
While some have criticized the practice of inmate firefighters as use of slave labor, the program is a voluntary program that gets the inmates out of the prison environment and enable them to positively contribute to society.
“It’s not just the [prison] walls you get rid of,” Michael Dignan, an inmate at the time, told KQEDin 2014. “You learn a lot about yourself. You learn that there is stuff you can put yourself through that you never thought you would have been able to do.”
California has been using inmate firefighters since the 1940’s, when the state called upon prisoners help with fires while many firefighters were deployed to World War II.
While these firefighting inmates continue to be the centerpiece of broader prison-labor issues, there’s no question their help is desperately needed during the current era of historic California fires.