Since 1980, federal firefighting crews have been cutback by 40 percent, the New York Times reports. The cutbacks shift the responsibility for fighting wildfires to state and local governments.
“Prison crews, cheap and dependable, have emerged as a solution as wildfires burn bigger, hotter and longer each year and take up a growing portion of the United States Forest Service budget,” according to the Times report.
Inmate firefighters are “very cost-effective,” said Julie Hutchinson a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDFFP).
CDFFP has the nation’s oldest and largest inmate firefighting program with roughly 4,000 prisoners and 200 crews, the Times reports. “And they’re out in the community, paying back for their mistakes,” Hutchinson said in the report.
California saves an estimated $80 million a year by paying inmate firefighters $1 per hour for work in emergencies like fires and floods, according to forestry and fire protection statistics.
Arizona inmate firefighters earn 50 cents an hour, among the lowest in the country, according to the Times.
In 2010, Colorado’s recidivism rate was the third highest in the nation at 52.5 percent. However, prison officials reported that inmate firefighters had a recidivism rate of less than 25 percent.
The inmate firefighters have the same training as other wilderness firefighters and must pass a physical test consisting of “traveling three miles on foot in 45 minutes, carrying 45 pounds on their backs,” the Times report.
“They’ve got to have the heart, the strength and the willingness to do the job,” said Jake Guadiana, an Arizona State Forestry coordinator. “This is not the place for you if you’re looking for a free meal and some time out of prison,” Guadiana said in the report.
To qualify for the firefighting program inmates must be free of rules violations and be in prison for a nonviolent offense.