California’s prisoners firefighters receive little benefit for their service on the fire lines
More than 3,000 California prisoners help fight the state’s wildfires and are paid well below minimum wages.
Inmates who work on active fires are paid between $2.90 and $5.12 a day, and get an additional $1 an hour during an active emergency, according to Fortune.com.
The major incentive inmates choosing to volunteer to serve their time at one of California’s 43 fire camps is the time off their sentence. When legislation was introduced in 2014 to include two—for—one credit to all inmates in CDCR, it met huge opposition according to a November article by Fortune.com.
“The extension of two-for-one credit 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 the fire camps,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)
The article also stated an affidavit from Vimal Singh, CDCR official, in which he points out extending early release credits would deplete the fire population.
“Prison is a uniquely coercive environment,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU. “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.”
The Conservation Camp Program was established in 1945, and is estimated to save the state of California $100 million dollars each year, according to Fortune.com.
Statistics show that over the past 35 years six inmate firefighters have died from injuries sustained from fighting a fire. This notion beckons the call as to what price is an inmate willing to pay for freedom.
“Prisoners should not volunteer to fight dangerous fires, simply because the alternative is being locked in a prison cell,” added Fathi.
There were two memos produced regarding inmate fire fighters pay. In one memo there was a suggestion that the inmate pay would increase from $1, which has been the pay rate for the last 40 years, to $2 an hour. The memo stated that even at this rate it would still save the state over $24.6 million dollars in lieu of hired firefighters. The memo also cautioned that, “Less inmate fire crews would result in the reliance of 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,” according to the article.
“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 for safer working conditions. When you put all those together it makes a prisoner a uniquely vulnerable workforce compared to everyone else who fights fires or does any other work in this society.”
Prisoners when released are unable to put their skills to use. Most firefighting jobs require employees to obtain an Emergency Medical Technician or paramedic license. In California most convicted felons can’t obtain this type of license until they have been free from custody for 10 years, according to the article.
When you couple the very high risk an inmate assumes it has created a decline in the amount of inmates willing to go to fire camp. A memo obtained by Earther from CALFire and California Department of Corrections
states that, “prisoners working in camps have declined by at least 1,000 people over the past 12 years,” the article stated.
CDCR has recently partnered a $26.6 million dollar firefighter certification and training program in Ventura County. The program will create an 18—month program which provides advance training to former inmates. The program can enroll 80 parolees but doesn’t give EMT licenses upon graduation. CAL FIRE has offered positions to two of the recent graduates.
Reyes introduced a bill in the legislature that would allow former inmates to join the California Firefighter Joint Venture Apprenticeship program. “Reyes believes that a criminal conviction should not be a life sentence, but rather that folks that have made a mistake, and demonstrated commitment and efforts to rehabilitation should have the same opportunities as everyone else,” said an official working for California Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eloise_Reyes
California Professional Firefighters, a union of more than 30,000 members, has fought against this plan, according to the article.