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Colorado Using SWIFT but Cheap Wildlands Firefighters

by Ed Lyon

For many years PLN has reported on prison systems across the nation like those in Arkansas and Texas that pay prisoners nothing for the work they are required to perform. Others, like Louisiana, pay only pennies per hour, which is legal because the Constitution’s 13th Amendment that abolished slavery in the United States exempted citizens convicted of a crime.

Into this environment comes now the undeniable fact that wildfires are increasing in size, numbers, intensity and burn duration. Fire seasons are also growing longer and longer as the years pass. And as of April 2021, Colorado has a new law to encourage prisoners to battle them.

After the fire season in 2000, the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) realized it had an unutilized enslaved resource, prisoner volunteers deemed “model inmates,” as weapons to battle the state’s growing wildfire menace. A program called the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT) was brought into existence.

Since SWIFT’s inception over 2,500 prisoners have successfully completed the same training program as free-world state firefighters, combatting wildfires as members of one of 20 prisoner teams working alongside their free-world counterparts. These intrepid prisoners are not paid mere pennies per hour though, they reap—for a prisoner—the princely sum of $12 a day; but only when they are actually working, risking their lives battling wildfires.

Most prisoners work at prison industry jobs to learn marketable skills they can use to obtain employment after their release. SWIFT prisoners are no different. Many told Garry Briese, executive director of Colorado State Fire Chiefs, that they want to work as firefighters after they leave prison.

Unfortunately, Briese reported that “in the entire history of the [SWIFT] program” ... not even 10 have finished their sentence and found full-time employment as firefighters.

That’s because the competition for these jobs is fierce, especially for SWIFT graduates.

“There’s rarely a shortage of people applying for firefighter jobs when they do become open,” Briese said. “So it’s like: Well, if we have all of these people without felonies, why should we bend over backwards to make it easier for people with felonies?”

Why indeed? Because a new state law now allows for state-level firefighting agencies to hire released SWIFT prisoners as free-world firefighters despite their felony record. Signed by Gov. Jared Polis (D) on April 15, 2021, Senate Bill 21-012 also mandates that the state’s fire prevention and control division establish a mentor program for newly hired former SWIFT firefighters to hone their professional skills.

One of the bill’s primary authors was Avon Representative Dylan Roberts (D). He stated “This is one of the most exciting and cool bills I think that I’ve done in my time at the Capitol.”

The CDOC supported the bill to the extent that it let its lobbyist, Aaron Greco, testify in support of it before the legislature. He assured lawmakers that only prisoners of good repute, who were remorseful for their crimes and were “model inmates” were chosen for the SWIFT program.

Of SB 21-012’s passage, Briese commented, “It’s a great first step, but it is not the end. It cannot be the end.”

A companion bill to SB 21-012 also signed by Polis will enhance the existing SWIFT program. It will grow nearly four-fold to 125 members, and pay will increase to $50 a day. Still a pittance compared to non-prisoner forest fire fighters who make as much as $150,000 a year. Critical of course is the lack of benefits for the prisoner firefighters, especially those injured on the job. SWIFT’s duties will also expand to include restoration of forests and mitigation of forest-fires.

CDOC’s executive director Dean Williams said that in addition to providing both a morale boost and needed structure for prisoners, the SWIFT program also aids in lowering recidivism rates because it helps prisoners find employment post-release.

“It doesn’t solve all of our recidivism problems,” he allowed, “but it’s important that we continue to take one more bite of the apple of providing opportunities for people out of prison.”

Nearby California, as previously reported in Prison Legal News, has seen a precipitous decline in the number of state prisoners volunteering for firefighting since the state began offering similar sentence credits for other types of work and prison officials began draining the pool of model-behavior, low-security-risk prisoners in order to comply with federal mandates to ease overcrowding. [See: PLN, Jan. 2020, p.24].

In Colorado’s Larimer County, where the firefighting program is run by the Emergency Services Unit of the Sheriff’s Department, twenty-six year-veteran Sergeant Kevin Johnston confirmed that firefighter applicants must pass a background check. He also said that his unit employs 50 firefighters on call who, like their incarcerated counterparts, are also paid only when they are actually fighting fires, though at a much higher rate.

As wildfire seasons grow longer, Johnston added, his employee roster grows longer, too, as interest swells. Still Johnston states that at times, “We can get stretched thin.” The idea of paying prisoners the prevailing community wage for the same dangerous work, with the same benefits as their non prisoner counterparts is apparently beyond the pale.

Editor’s Note: What is missing from the corporate media discussion is how prison slavery steals jobs from the community and depresses the wages of workers. Every job being filled by a $50 a day prisoner slave with no benefits is a job taken from a member of the community who would otherwise be paid the prevailing wage of $24 an hour, perhaps with benefits including workers compensation if they are injured on the job. Somehow enslaving prisoners and taking jobs from non prisoners and depressing those workers’ wages is seen as sound public policy. Corporate media accounts are also silent about the portion of wages paid to prisoners that are then seized by the state to pay for “room and board” or what percentage the prisoners actually get. 

Source: Colorado Sun

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