The California wildfires are still raging and many people have lost their homes and lives. As the inferno continues to threaten the Golden State, about 4,000 of California’s prison inmate firefighters — both women and men — risk injury and death to combat the state’s destructive blazes. The program is run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and began during World War II. To date, six prisoners have died in the line of duty.
Not all inmates are permitted to join the firefighting program: an inmate must have five years or less remaining on their sentence and those convicted of sexual offenses or arson are excluded from the program.
California inmates can earn 8 cents to 95 cents per hour for jobs like license plate production and office furniture construction, and firefighters inmates can make up to $2.56 a day in “conservation fire camps” and $1 an hour when fighting active fires.
American television shows such as 60 Days In have highlighted how prison inmates in the United States rely on funds in order to purchase commissary items like food, stationery, and personal hygiene products, so the ability to make money whilst incarcerated can mean added comfort to one’s stay with the ability to wash one’s hair with shampoo or enjoy a snack of ramen noodles.
More than any other state in America, California relies heavily on inmate firefighters to combat fires small and large, and the inmates’ efforts save the state $100 million per year. It’s supposedly a beneficial arrangement for both parties, as inmate firefighters can also receive a reduced sentence for their work; but when these inmate firefighters are released, it is impossible for them to continue with the skills they learned whilst incarcerated and that is because, in the United States, most fire departments require their firefighters to have Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training, and applicants with criminal records are usually denied by EMT certifying boards.
Interactive Map of CDCR Fire Camps Located throughout the State of California
Prison labor is a billion dollar industry and many companies utilize the reduced cost of labor. Films such as Ava DuVernay’s ‘13th’ show how mass incarceration in the United States has led some to label prison labor as modern slavery, and as prisoners begin to strike due to poor living conditions and low wages, the question arises if prisons are truly meant to rehabilitate inmates or merely provide a cheap workforce for both state and private purposes.