Inmates make up nearly a third of California’s firefighting force

Inmates make up nearly a third of California’s firefighting force

With regular blazes the “new normal” on the West Coast, prison labor continues to play a huge role in battling them

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Edited by JPat Brown

The State of California is currently experiencing the largest forest fires it has ever seen, a remarkable accomplishment given the regularity with which portions of the Golden State are engulfed in flames. At the end of last year, Governor Jerry Brown called the disruption caused by such fires “the new normal,” and with nearly a dozen currently ongoing blazes, his assessment is seemingly accurate.

To help fight the blazes, the state regularly turns to inmate firefighters, a fact which the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recently tweeted out, acknowledging the outsized role that prisoner firefighters play in keeping the destruction under control.

But with each new blaze comes pushback against the utilization of prisoners - often paid just dollars a day - in one of the most dangerous occupations out there. The program, which makes inmates nearly a third of the state’s total fire fighting forces, saves something like $90-100 million a year. Once their time is served, though, the prisoners themselves may not be able to cash in on their new skills; on the outside, these experienced firefighters face convict restrictions on emergency responder certification.

California isn’t the only state to turn to inmates for this purpose. Arizona, Washington, and Virginia are among those that have also used prisoners to make up for a dearth in other firefighting personnel.

MuckRock is currently awaiting responses to requests for inmate firefighter compensation reports. In the meantime, let us know what we should know via the form below.

Image by Steve Hedin via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0