California is Fighting Its Rampant Wildfires with Prison Labor

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Thanks to an ongoing drought exacerbated by climate change, California and the Western U.S. are facing one of their worst wildfire seasons on record.

The worst fire in recent memory and the third largest in California history, the 2013 Rim Fire, claimed more than 250,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park. In comparison, nearly 118,000 acres have already burned in California alone this wildfire season, more than double the five-year average for this time of year, Mother Jones reported on Monday. (Check out the magazine’s interactive map of current California wildfires here.)

Fires are also burning in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Colorado, causing the evacuation of more than 1,000 people and claiming 1.1 million acres in total, the National Interagency Fire Center said Monday in a news release. About 200 active military personnel will be deployed to fight ravaging wildfires in the seven Western states, CNN reported.

But California has a dirty little secret for keeping wildfires at bay: recruiting prison laborers.

The state has relied on the cheap labor of volunteer inmates to fight wildfires since the 1940s. The state now boasts the largest volunteer inmate firefighting program in the country, with around 4,000 inmate firefighters, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

To put that in perspective: The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) — the state’s emergency fire response program — has about 10,000 firefighters on the ground combating wildfires, meaning almost half of its firefighting force is made up of volunteer inmates, Think Progress reported last week.

Although all firefighting positions with Cal Fire are volunteer, civilian volunteer firefighters receive minimum wage for the dangerous work of fighting 100-foot flames ($9 an hour in California). In contrast, inmate firefighters are paid about $1 an hour for fighting fires. When they’re working in camp or training, they receive anywhere from $1.45 to $3.90 a day.

That seems shockingly low for a state-run program, but “it’s good money for prison standards,” Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which co-operates the inmate firefighting program with Cal Fire, told Think Progress.

As you may guess, this program saves the state (and the taxpayer) a boatload of money, although estimates vary as to just how much. Cal Fire pays a typical civilian firefighting crew (12 to 15 people) between $2,592 and $3,240 for a 24-hour period of fighting fires — while inmate firefighters cost between $288 and $360 over the same period. Estimates for annual savings of the program range from $80 million to $1 billion a year.

On the surface, this may sound like a good deal for the taxpayer: Thanks to cheap prison labor, the state saves millions of dollars a year on a necessary service. And it’s far from unprecedented for inmates to do odd jobs for the state, like the age-old example of making license plates.

But when it comes to fighting wildfires, a highly dangerous job that claimed the lives of 300 men and women between 2000 and 2013, an uncomfortable yet imperative question arises: Are these inmates really volunteering? Are they really risking their lives of their own free will? What does free will mean when you are behind bars?

The inmate volunteer firefighting program in California operates on what’s called a 2-1 credits system, which incentivizes participation by offering inmates twice as many credits toward early release as they would earn by working inside the prison.

That already starts to smell a bit fishy. Offering an inmate a reduced sentence for a dangerous job presents a painfully obvious conflict of interest. Even if an inmate volunteers, one can never fully argue he or she did so willingly.

If your nose is already wrinkling, get ready because it’s about to smell even worse: It seems some state officials are actually nervous that reforms seeking to reduce California’s notoriously overcrowded prison population will put a damper on its successful inmate firefighter program.

In November of last year, lawyers for the state filed court documents arguing that a proposed expansion of parole programs would “drastically undercut the appeal of the state’s fire program,” Think Progress reported. Attorneys for the state argued that such an expansion would “severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought,” the site reported last year.

The program has historically recruited volunteer inmates from state prisons, with some limitations (no arsonists, no violent offenders, no inmates serving a life sentence, and no inmates with behavior problems in high-security institutions).

But as prison reform takes hold in California and more inmates are granted early parole or moved into county jails, the state has started to look to county facilities to fill the program. The most recent investigative piece from Think Progress (here’s that link again) includes several disturbing quotes from state officials, including referring to inmates as “resources.” But for those who don’t have time to read in full, this doozy about reform shifting prisoners from state to county prisons should give you a pretty good glimpse at the full picture:

“We are always concerned, but we have contingency plans,” Sessa of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told Think Progress. “There were predictions a few years ago that the population would drop dramatically, and fortunately those predictions did not come true, but anticipating that they might the state negotiated contracts with counties to provide jail inmates if we need them. Out of the 3,800 that we currently have out there, only about 200 or so are actually from counties.”

Yes, you read that right: “fortunately those predictions did not come true.” When the state has become so dependent on cheap prison labor to execute programs as necessary as fighting wildfires, that raises serious ethical questions. It should be a glaring red-flag that state officials are so nervous about losing their pool of cheap labor that they’ll actually push back on reforms seeking to reduce the state’s prison population. Yes, those same prisons that  have been described as unconstitutionally overcrowded.

This story only adds to the backdrop of a prison-industrial complex that increasingly treats people as commodities. From recent allegations that a private jail near Nashville, Tennessee, is exploiting free prisoner labor to line staff members’ personal pockets, to a Pennsylvania judge being sentenced to 30 years for selling people (many of them children as young as 10) into the private prison system in return for cash bribes, it’s clear something is wrong.

It can be easy to dismiss inmates simply by saying: “Don’t want to be paid $1 an hour? Don’t commit a crime in the first place.” But if an entity — whether it be the state or a private firm — is profiting directly off the backs of underpaid prison laborers, often recruited under duress, that presents a serious human rights issue we need to start thinking about. We’re already on the path to a reality in which a “made in the United States” label could really mean “made by prisoners paid sweatshop wages right here in the U.S.” Heck, organic, “American-raised” salmon being sold at your local Whole Foods may have been raised in a prison labor camp.

While California will likely continue to depend on prison laborers to fight its drought-induced wildfires, it’s glaringly obvious that the program is unsustainable. As talk of the prison-industrial complex and inmate exploitation moves from a whisper to a roar, regulatory reform will only strengthen in the state. And officials may be wise to think about other options now, so they’re not left in the lurch when the state (finally) gets its prison population down to a reasonable level.

Image credit: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture

Mary Mazzoni

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist with a passion for storytelling and sustainability. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, Earth911, the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands and the Daily Meal.

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian with an interest in climate resilience, clean tech and social justice. You can contact her at mary@triplepundit.com.