California Is Using Prisoners To Help Fight The Wildfires And Paying Them $1.45 Per Day, ACLU Claims

The state has been criticized for using prisoners to fight fires and for making it nearly impossible for them to find real work as firefighters once they are released.

California is paying prisoners $1.45 per day to help fight deadly wildfires.
Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

The state has been criticized for using prisoners to fight fires and for making it nearly impossible for them to find real work as firefighters once they are released.

California is calling on about 200 prisoners to help battle wildfires, and in return, those prisoners are getting $1.45 per day to put their lives in danger, the ACLU claims.

The civil rights advocacy organization noted that the state is using prisoners from its Conservation Camp program to work alongside civilian employees in battling two massive wildfires in the state. But California is not required to offer minimum wage to these prisoners, and the organization argues that the state is exploiting the labor of this population.

The ACLU has often advocated for prisoners’ rights and argued that the prisoners who are being used to help battle the wildfires do not have any real choice about whether they want to be there or not.

“It’s true that no California prisoners are forced to fight fires; prisoners volunteer for the assignment. But prison is an inherently coercive environment; there’s very little that is truly voluntary,” the ACLU noted. “So it’s critically important to ensure that prisoners who choose to work are making a free and uncoerced choice, and a choice that’s fully informed about the risks and dangers of the work they’re agreeing to do.”

The ACLU added that two prisoner firefighters died in accidents last year, and in 1990 a crew of five prisoner firefighters was killed fighting a blaze in Arizona.

California’s prisoner firefighter program has generated controversy this year as many were called into duty to help battle wildfires. As USA Today noted, more than 2,000 of these firefighters were called on during the summer to face what was then the largest fire in state history, all while the state was denying them the chance to use those skills once they are released from prison.

As the report noted, nearly all counties in California require firefighters to become licensed EMTs in order to get a job as a firefighter, but that credential is denied to anyone with a criminal record. That leaves thousands of people who have gained real experience fighting fires unable to put their skills to good use on the outside and find a career that could potentially help keep them from returning to prison.

Some in California are trying to fix the problem, the report noted, and legislation has been introduced to fix some of the barriers in the way for released prisoners. The state has also gained the ability to certify former prison firefighters as “emergency medical responders,” a certification that can be used in lieu of an EMT license.