California Prisoners Provide Cheap Labor to Fight Dangerous Wildfires
by Joe Watson
As a five-year drought has turned California into a tinderbox, wildfires are being fought with the help of a decades-old program that supplies cheap prison labor.
Proponents of statewide prison firefighting crews – including many prisoners themselves – say they not only save taxpayers millions of dollars annually, but also offer a sense of purpose rarely afforded to those behind bars.
“It was so physically demanding – but I have to say, it was an honor, a privilege, and a gift to be doing it,” said Jacques D’Elia, who battled wildfires for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for nearly three years until he completed his sentence in November 2013. “And it made me understand how much good I could do and how proud of myself I could be at the end of the day, which never happened in prison.”
Of course, there are also critics who say the warm afterglow of working on the fire crews does not alter the fact that prisoners are an expendable “slave labor” force used to perform dangerous jobs.
“Pshh, this might be beyond slavery, whatever this is,” CDCR prisoner and firefighter Demetrius Barr told Buzzfeed. “They don’t have a whip. That’s the difference.”
Barr was trailed by a Buzzfeed reporter for a year while he worked out of the Holton Conservation Camp, north of Los Angeles – one of 42 adult and two juvenile fire camps operated by the CDCR statewide.
In total, about 3,800 prisoner firefighters assist another 16,000 or so civilians employed each wildfire season, during which hundreds of thousands of acres have been burned across the state since a record-breaking drought began in 2011.
The CDCR has enlisted volunteer firefighters from among the ranks of state prisoners since the 1940s. They are paid between $1.45 and $3.90 per day, in addition to a two-day reduction in their sentence for every day worked. Only minimum-custody prisoners with five or fewer years to serve are eligible, and those convicted of arson or a sexual offense are excluded. Each volunteer is screened, medically cleared and trained by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
Other prisoner firefighting crews have been deployed by prison systems in Arizona and Utah.
The CDCR claims the program saves California taxpayers an estimated $100 million annually. [See: PLN, June 2004, p.22]. Yet with climate change exacerbating the state’s wildfire season every year, Buzzfeed has estimated the amount may be as high as $1 billion. It notes that Cal Fire will pay a crew of 12 to 15 civilian firefighters as much as $3,240 over a 24-hour period, but a prisoner crew of the same size is paid as little as $288 – saving nearly $3,000 per day for each of approximately 219 prison fire crews.
However, California has been forced to reduce its prison population under a federal court order affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1]. That has taken time, with the CDCR first meeting its court-ordered population benchmark in 2015. Under the state’s Realignment initiative, thousands of state prisoners have been moved to county jails.
California’s Deputy Attorney General argued against continuing to give prisoners working at fire camps twice as many early release credits as they would earn in in-prison jobs. State officials noted that releasing too many prisoners “would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”
Although then-Attorney General Kamala Harris originally agreed that the two-for-one credits would deprive Cal Fire of a “labor pool,” she later backed off, telling a progressive website that keeping prisoners locked up so the state could benefit from their cheap labor “evokes images of chain gangs.”
Nevertheless, the smaller CDCR population has reduced the pool of prisoners available to work on fire crews, so prison officials have encouraged more volunteers from local jails, where those convicted of less serious crimes are increasingly being recruited.
“It’s true that over time, in theory, the inmates who are eligible to volunteer – that population should be reducing in state prison,” said CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa. “But we currently have a sufficient number of inmates so the fire protection is not compromised.”
That was in February 2016, when a dozen county jail systems were providing 242 prisoners for fire crews, or about 6 percent of the total used by Cal Fire. By September of last year, however, the CDCR was about 600 prisoners short – so it announced it was turning to the state’s Conservation Corps.
The Corps recruits men and women up to age 25 (30 for military veterans) for a one-year assignment at the state minimum wage of $10 an hour. Of its 1,400 members, only 200 were initially employed to assist Cal Fire. Corps Director Bruce Saito said he expected to create at least four more fire crews with roughly 15 members each by summer 2017, and a half-dozen new crews during each of the following two years.
Meanwhile, the remaining prison fire crews continue their dangerous work, with some participants – like Shawna Lynn Jones and Raymond G. Araujo – making the ultimate sacrifice.
Jones, a 22-year-old Los Angeles County prisoner, joined the CDCR’s fire camp program in August 2015 and was assigned to the Malibu Camp, jointly operated by Cal Fire and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. She died on February 26, 2016, one day after being struck by a falling boulder while working a brush fire.
“Her death is a tragic reminder of the danger that inmate firefighters face when they volunteer to confront fires to save homes and lives,” said CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan.
Araujo, 37, was a Riverside County jail prisoner who volunteered for firefighting duty; he died on April 13, 2015 of a heart attack during a training exercise.
Other prisoners have died or been seriously injured while working on fire crews, too. [See: PLN, Dec. 2010, p.50; March 2001, p.14]. The worst incident occurred in June 1990, when five prisoner firefighters – James Ellis, Joseph Chacon, Alex Contreras, James Denney and Curtis Springfield – and prison guard Sandra Bachman, all from ASPC-Perryville in Arizona, died during a blaze known as the Dude Fire. The prisoners received posthumous pardons.
CDCR Secretary Kernan assumed his position in January 2016, after his predecessor first denied and then admitted the CDCR had long allowed violent offenders to volunteer for firefighting crews. But Kernan defended the practice, even as he also continued to urge county jails to send volunteer prisoners to Cal Fire by reducing the amount the state collects for each worker.
“I know that the sheriffs have challenges with their budget as well, but I think as we expand to the county level, I think it’s going to be able to keep our fire camp population at a right, reasonable level,” he said.
Sources: www.themarshallproject.org, www.truthout.org, www.thinkprogress.org, www.motherjones.com, www.foxnews.com, www.ktla.com, www.usnews.com, www.insidecdcr.ca.gov, USA Today