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Wildfires Highlight Cheapness of Prisoner Lives

Wildfires HighLight Cheapness of Prisoner Lives

The summer of 2000 brought dev-
astating wildfires to the Western United States. By official count, some 25,000 firefighters were involved battling dozens of blazes across the West during the height of the fire season. That includes ground crews, air squads, fire engine personnel, and an army of supervisors and support workers, according to federal fire manager Neil Hitchcock.

About 13,000 people belong to crews assigned to the actual fire lines. Of those, Mr. Hitchcock said, more than 2,000 were prisoners. And at wages that average $1 hour, the convict firefighters represent a considerable bargain for taxpayers in a year when federal firefighting expenditures exceeded $1 billion.

California has the largest convict firefighter program, with prisoners based in 38 conservation camps across the state. Another large program exists in Nevada, with about 900 prisoners involved. Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, Utah and, most recently, Texas are among states that have established smaller operations.

Utah's program is one of the smallest, with three crews of 20 firefighters. But those crews are unique in that they are the only prisoners to hold the federal designation as "hotshots," slang for topranking Type I status. They wear Tshirts `with the name of their team: "Flame `N' Go Hotshots," not the dayglow orange coveralls worn by prisoners from California and some other states. And Utah's Flame `N' Go Hotshots are accompanied by unarmed DOC escorts, rather than the guntoting guards common to most prisoner firefighting crews.

Most prisoner firefighters earn extra good time credits in addition to their paltry wages, with a oneday credit off their sentence typically offered for every day spent on the fire lines. In Utah, though, sentences are fixed, so their "Hotshots" receive $5.50 hour _ by far the highest pay of all convict fire crews, but still just a fraction of civilian wages. A freeworld firefighter with the same "hotshot" designation earns $15 an hour, plus generous overtime and other benefits.

The savings realized from exploiting cheap prison labor are not limited to lower wages. In California, where the state prison population tops 162,000, it costs $21,000 a year to keep a prisoner behind the walls, but just $13,000 a year at one of the conservation camps, says Mack Reynolds, a prison official who supervises that state's program.

But perhaps the most telling indicator of the cheapness of prisoners is what happens when they die. In August 2000, two Flame `N' Go Hotshots were killed in Utah in a lightening strike. The state paid only for the prisoners' funerals. And Utah officials say they doubt the two prisoners are eligible for federal death benefits of nearly $150,000 routinely paid to civilian firefighters killed in action.

"When we signed up, we had to sign a waiver that released the state from any liability," Utah prisoner and firefighter Michael Kinikini explained to the New York Times. "But the bottom line is that we're out there protecting public land, and if we die, the compensation should be the same as for everyone else."

Source: New York Times.

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