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Arizona Pays Prisoners Pennies on the Dollar to Fight Fires, All in the Name of Saving Money

Why does this happen? To save the state money, of course.

In March 2020, Governor Doug Ducey signed a fiscal year 2021 budget allotting only $9.1 million for wildland firefighting across the state. This included expenses and payroll for all of the Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) professional firefighters, as well as the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADOC) Inmate Wildfire Program. Compare this to the more than $1.2 billion budget for ADOC alone and it’s clear where the state’s priorities lie.

“Absolutely it saves the state, and ultimately the taxpayers money,” DFFM spokesperson Tiffany Davilla said. “Fire suppression is not cheap, and we must find cost savings when it comes to fighting fire.”

She confirmed that the median pay for a DFFM professional firefighter is about $58,000 a year, or just over $22 per hour. Now, compare that to the $1.50 per hour prisoner-firefighters earn, and that’s only when they’re actually fighting a fire. Otherwise, they earn about 50 cents to a dollar an hour for other firefighting work, again only when they’re actually working. Breaks don’t count.

“What those numbers say to me is they’re using inmate labor to close the budget gap,” State Rep. Kristin Engel said. She’s also a professor at the University of Arizona College of Law. “It’s really the state’s responsibility to, along with the federal government, to fight these fires. But that should be done with paid workers.” While Engel made the obvious point that firefighting should be left to the professionals, the Constitution says that using prisoners as cheap labor (or free labor in some states) is perfectly fine.

The Thirteenth Amendment bans slavery and involuntary servitude of any kind — “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Prison authorities have relied on this exception for centuries to force prisoners to work for free, even when it puts money in the pockets of private parties. And they’ve used it to justify paying prisoners just pennies for dangerous work, such as firefighting.

In other words, what ADOC is doing is perfectly legal and constitutional.

Arizona prisoners also earn days off their sentence, but at a severely reduced rate compared to California State prisoner-firefighters. Because of Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law enacted during the failed “tough on crime” era in the 1990s, which requires state prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, prisoners are limited on how much time off they can earn by working and improving themselves. In California, for example, a prisoner can earn two days off his sentence for each day worked in the firefighter program there. Arizona prisoners can earn only one day off for every six days they work.

State Rep. Walt Blackman introduced a bill in 2020 to change this earned time law for Arizona prisoners, but the bill stalled before it even got started. He called the Inmate Wildlife Program a “model” because it proves that the prisoners “can go outside the prison walls and do a service that most people who are free wouldn’t even do.” He plans to try again with his idea for increasing earned time off with another bill in 2021. 


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