California Inmates Risking Lives For $2 A Day To Work With Firefighters Combating Wildfires

California prison inmates fighting fires
Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

By now, most people have probably read about the vicious California wildfires plaguing areas of both Northern and Southern California. The fires have reportedly become so widespread that firefighters have been working around the clock – sometimes 24-hour shifts – to contain the smoldering blazes.

The workload is now so overwhelming that California firefighters have formed an unconventional partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by enlisting the help of inmate firefighters. While most people would likely find the partnership to be a courageous act of service, according to Newsweek, the inmate firefighter partnership has actually sparked a heated debate.

In the state of California, salaried firefighters reportedly make an average of $74,000 plus benefits. However, the inmate firefighters aren’t making nearly as much. To be exact, they’re only making $2 a day and an additional $1 an hour “when fighting an active fire.” This position has been made available to offenders who do not have a history of “arson, sexual crimes, kidnapping, gang-affiliation, or escape attempts.” It is also important to note that these inmates are not the ones facing life sentences.

After volunteering, potential inmate firefighters are trained in fire safety and field conditions. Then, they must pass a physical exam before being transferred to one of the 43 low-security field camps throughout the state. It has been reported that approximately 3,400 inmate firefighters are currently fighting active fires.

Rapidly-Spreading Wildfire In California's Butte County Prompts Evacuations
Firefighters hold a morning meeting as they continue to battle the Camp Fire on November 10, 2018, in Paradise, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Several reports have noted the heightened criticism California has faced for the program. In fact, during an interview with the publication, Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, noted the vast differences between the treatment of inmates in comparison to that of actual firefighters. Although both are doing the same job and putting their lives at risk, they’ll never be treated equally. Since these are inmates who have the potential to re-enter society after serving their prison sentences, Barab believes it is seemingly unfair for them to risk their lives and not be fairly compensated.

Also, California law currently restricts convicted felons from ever becoming firefighters so even after dedicating themselves to such an act of service, inmate firefighters will never have an opportunity for legitimate employment with California fire departments after being released.

“These are very dangerous jobs,” Barab said. “Anytime you see prisoners doing work, they don’t have the same kind of job security or right to complain about unsafe conditions. They can’t quit or go work for different jobs. They either do the job as they’re told to do it or they go back to regular prison. This is a captive group of workers being asked to put their lives on the line.”

Despite the stark criticism, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is defending its decision. Vicky Waters with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released a statement to Newsweek on Tuesday, November 6 about the wildfires and the inmates currently working with firefighters. It has been reported that some involved are classified as “youth offenders.”

“In an active fire, Cal Fire makes the determination for all crews based on the conditions, and the safety and security of all firefighters. In other words, inmate firefighters are not treated differently in the work they perform at the camps,” Waters told the publication. “I just want to emphasize that we absolutely recognize the incredible job these firefighters are doing, particularly when lives and properties are at stake.”