The volunteer inmate firefighter program helps both California and prisoners — but it’s highly problematic, starting with the pay
As the largest fire in state history rages across California, 13,000 firefighters are battling the flames, which now cover an area roughly the size of Los Angles. But while most of these brave men and women are paid a mean salary of $74,000 plus benefits, about 3,400 make only $2 a day ($3 when they’re directly fighting a fire). These are inmate firefighters from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who volunteer to put their lives on the line for a complex set of reasons.
While the two groups fight the same fire, the inmate firefighters face very different realities both while on the job and after the fires go out.
According to Newsweek, the prisoners (about 240 of which are women) volunteer for the job. They can’t be incarcerated for sex crimes or arson, and they can’t be serving a life sentence. They are trained for two weeks, pass an exam, and then start work, which often involves carrying a 60-pound pack, wielding a chainsaw, hiking for miles, breathing smokey air, and working for 24 hours straight.
But there are a lot of reasons for inmate firefighters to volunteer: they get to live in low-security camps, they get time shaved off their sentences, they get much better, fresher food, and even at $2 a day, fighting fires pays better than other jobs for incarcerated people. They also get to be treated much more like a free person–working outside and existing side by side with regular citizens. Finally, they feel like they’re doing good and helping, which they absolutely are.
But many believe that the inmate firefighters program is extremely problematic, even though it is saving the state between $80 million and $100 million a year and keeping countless homes and families safe from natural disaster.
Even though it’s a volunteer program, many sign up and risk their lives just to feel a little more free, or just to make a few extra dollars (it literally takes months of back-breaking labor to earn $1,000). Some sign up who are desperate to cut down their sentence.
In other words, it’s a dangerous, unfair option, but it’s the best option many prisoners have.
“Look, the biggest, most important thing is putting out the fires,” said Lisa Graybill, Deputy Legal Director at Southern Poverty Law Center told Newsweek. “And in my experience, prisoners are so eager for the chance to work and chance to demonstrate their rehabilitation that they’ll accept any work conditions. But they shouldn’t be exploited by the state. They’re putting their lives on the line like other California firefighters, and they should be paid fairly for a fair day’s work.”
While the program touts the benefit that firefighter inmates gain training and job skills, others are quick to point out that felons can’t be trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) — a license required to work as a regular firefighter.
At the same time, firefighter inmates who are injured or killed on the job don’t receive workers’ compensation or death benefits like the man or woman fighting beside them. One woman, 22-year-old Shawna Lynn Jones, was killed fighting fires in 2016 with only two months of her three year sentence remaining. While she was given a firefighter’s funeral, that’s where the similarities ended.
“Many people who are incarcerated have families on the outside who are relying on them to come home and be their breadwinner again, said Graybill. “If anything does happen to them, will there be provision for their families and will they be taken care of in any way?”
It seems clear that these prisoners would simply not take this job — that could kill them — except that they’re in prison.
“These are very dangerous jobs,” said Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “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.”
At the same time, though, the prisoners like the program in comparison to their other choices — and fighting the program could put an end to it.
In the end, the inmate firefighers program begs bigger questions about incarceration, like why so many thousands of low-level offenders can hold these extremely difficult, harrowing, jobs without a problem and without making any trouble.
David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, believes of the brave incarcerated men and women fighting the blazes: “maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.”
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