The persistent drought California is experiencing is causing another huge problem in addition to water shortages: wildfires. Since 2002, more than half of the states’ biggest wildfires have occurred as a result of climate change. The largest wildfire in the state, the Rocky Fire, has burned almost 70,000 acres of forest, but it is 95 percent contained, in part, thanks to volunteer inmate firefighters who are paid a shockingly low $1 an hour to put their lives on the line.
When we hear about the raging fires in California and see images of brave firefighters flash across our television screens, we are not told that many of the people battling the blazes are inmates from the California Department of Corrections. The state’s fire prevention program literally could not function were it not for the cheap labor the emergency response program, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), receives from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Cal Fire has 10,000 volunteer firefighters and nearly half of them, about 4,000, come from prison.
These inmates, who receive credit for early release if they volunteer, are paid $1 an hour to do back-breaking work. They are almost always tasked with the job of cutting fire lines. That is when they go down steep embankments, that bulldozers and other equipment can’t get to, and cut away thick brush to create wide lines of soil that the fires will not burn. If the inmates don’t get this job done, all of the other tools Cal Fire uses to fight the fires would be far less effective; and all of it is done for a pathetic wage.
It’s not difficult to understand why the state relies so heavily on inmate labor. The average civilian volunteer firefighter makes $9 an hour, if they are paid minimum wage. ThinkProgress explains just how much the state saves with their inmate labor:
Over a 24-hour period, paying a crew of 12 to 15 civilian fighters would cost Cal Fire between $2,592 and $3,240. Inmate firefighters, on the other hand, cost $288 and $360. That’s a savings of anywhere from $2,304 to $2,880 per crew — and with 196 inmate crews spread across the state, the program saves Cal Fire at least almost half a million dollars each year.
Janet Upton, deputy director of communications at Cal Fire, said,”If the tax dollars had to support this program, it would be a lot more costly with [civilian] firefighters.” According to Buzzfeed, the state saves more than a billion dollars a year by using what falls uncomfortably close to slave labor.
The state saves so much money, in fact, that officials panicked when there was talk of expanding their parole program and releasing inmates early as a way to reduce the state’s gigantic prison population. The talk of expanding their early release program came after a 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the state of California had to find a way to reduce their unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons.
This led to lawyers for the state filing papers to stop the court from expanding the parole program because it would “severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”
That’s right: the state fought to keep their mass incarceration rates high, because they need the cheap labor to fight their fires in order to save money. Upton calls the inmates an “important resource” as if she is talking about bulldozers or water:
“They’re an important resource just as all our resources are,” Upton said. “The strength of each of those resources is their ability to work together. An airtanker by itself is not effective — it has to be followed up by boots on the ground work.”
The state relies so heavily on these “volunteers” who are enticed with the promise of an early release and “more money” than other prison jobs, that they have begun to move away from their traditional “volunteer pool” in the state prisons and are now taking inmates from county jails. Bill Cessa, spokesman for the CDCR, is actually happy that the prison population has not dramatically dropped:
“We are always concerned, but we have contingency plans,” Cessa said. “There were predictions a few years ago that the population would drop dramatically, and fortunately those predictions did not come true, but anticipating that they might the state negotiated contracts with counties to provide jail inmates if we need them. Out of the 3,800 that we currently have out there, only about 200 or so are actually from counties.”
It is absolutely disgusting that the state of California is relying on prisoners, who they pay nearly nothing, to fight the fires in the state. These are modern-day chain gangs, but doing a terrifyingly dangerous job for peanuts. Our country prides itself on our record of human rights and admonishes other nations for violating them, but we are basically using slaves to battle fires. It begs the question: how many non-violent offenders are being given harsh sentences to provide Cal Fire cheap labor?
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.