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California’s Firefighting Prisoners in Short Supply

by Matt Clarke

California has a history of using prisoners to fight wildfires that dates back to World War II. But that practice is being questioned after 2018 was one of the worst fire seasons ever recorded, and several prisoners were seriously injured fighting the infamous Camp Fire.

Critics point out that prison is a coercive environment – so participation as “voluntary” firefighters cannot be called truly voluntary – and the prisoners are barely compensated for the difficult, exhausting and dangerous work. They see the declining number of prisoners joining the firefighting program now that other avenues are available to earn similar amounts of time off their sentences as proof that it has never been really voluntary.

It’s hard to argue that the prisoners are adequately compensated. They have traditionally earned $2.00 a day, supplemented by $1.00 per hour when actually fighting a fire. [See: PLN, Feb. 2019, p.30; April 2017, p.46]. The daily pay was recently raised to up to $5.12, but that is negligible compared to the $40,000 to $56,000 annual salaries earned by free-world rank-and-file firefighters. This underpaying of thousands of prisoners employed at fire camps – who constitute about a third of the state’s wildfire fighters – saves California an estimated $100 million a year. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has over 3,100 prisoners in its Conservation Camp program. About 2,150 are “fire-line qualified,” trained sufficiently to fight wildfires. That is a drop of about 1,000 from the number of workers in the program 10 years ago.

Since 2015, the CDCR has been complaining that it cannot find enough prisoners to “volunteer” for the program, which has 43 fire camps statewide.

“We have five crews normally. Right now we have four crews,” said CAL FIRE District Commander John Owens, who oversees fire crews in San Luis Obispo County. “We’re short 25 inmate firefighters, but our system overall is short 1,300 firefighters in the entire state.”

The traditional enticements for prisoners were a chance to earn 2-for-l sentence reduction credits and the $2.00-a-day pay, which was high compared to other prison jobs. 

State officials blame the 2011 realignment legislation, AB 109, and 2014’s Proposition 47 for the drop in volunteers. Those prison reform measures extended 2-for-1 credits to all minimum-security prisoners – not just those in the firefighter program. The office of then-state Attorney General (and former presidential candidate) Kamala Harris opposed the reforms on the grounds they would result in fewer prisoners available to work in the fire camps.

“Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation – a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought,” attorneys in Harris’ office wrote.

Harris reportedly disagreed with that line of reasoning. 

“As she said at the time, Senator Harris was shocked and troubled by the use of this argument. She looked into it and directed the department’s attorneys not to make that argument again,” said a spokesman for her presidential campaign.

Another reason for the declining participation in the fire camp program may be that word has reached prisoners that the work is dangerous. Five firefighters were seriously injured during the Camp Fire. Two were prisoners who suffered severe burns to their face and neck. Three prisoners have died from 2016 to 2018 while training or fighting fires. 

Additionally, the declining number of volunteer workers is partly caused by the CDCR’s own policies. The only prisoners allowed to work at fire camps are those who are minimum-security and incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Those are the exact prisoners targeted for improved chances of release following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Plata decision, which held the CDCR was unconstitutionally overcrowded. One solution would be to open the firefighting program to medium-security prisoners or minimum-security prisoners convicted of violent offenses. Prison officials could also raise the pay that the fire crews receive.

Critics question whether prisoners who are trustworthy enough to be emergency responders should be in prison at all. Proponents of the firefighting program argue that it trains them for jobs after release. However, in almost all cases prisoners are unable to obtain jobs as firefighters once they are freed, due to their criminal record preventing them from receiving EMT licenses. 

A change in that law also would encourage more prisoners to join the firefighting program. While legislation was introduced to do just that in 2018 (AB 2293), it was amended to only require reports on the number of applicants rejected for EMT licenses due to criminal records. Another bill was introduced in February 2019, but has remained stalled. It is opposed by the California Professional Firefighters union.

If the state wants to continue using prisoners to fight fires, it will have to do better. 



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