California inmates are fighting wildfires; are paid essentially nothing

Inmates work long hours under brutal conditions for only $2 a day

By Joanna Rothkopf
August 1, 2014 11:50PM (UTC)
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A firefighter watches for spot fires during a burnout operation while battling the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., Aug. 25, 2013. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

"Conservation camps" is the term used to describe the 4,000 prison inmates who are responsible for fighting California's wildfires. A San Francisco-based news station, KQED traveled with one of the 16-member crews as they fought the 22,600-acre Bully Fire in northern California. Inmates carried 100 pounds of gear and hiked for hours in 115 degree heat-- not including the heat from the fire.

The average firefighter in the state will earn around $34 an hour. These inmates earn $2 in a whole day. It's "not an actual wage," said John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in an interview with Vox. The wage is "so far below poverty that it's just laughable."


Vox's Dara Lind writes:

...The California firefighting program is better than most. "It's doing two things very well," [Roman] says. "It's teaching people a skill that they wouldn't have already had, and it's keeping them out of a correctional facility."

But it's missing the third element that Roman says a good prison-labor program needs: training not just for a job, but for a career. Firefighting is "a low-wage job, and a seasonal job." It's not for everyone -- the California government says that three to five percent of prisoners who participate get jobs in firefighting afterwards, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Most of the inmates KQED talked to said they would not pursue firefighting careers after they got released. And their [sic] the skills they learn in the program won't necessarily be applicable to other jobs."

Still, since these inmates are not legally employed, they don't get any of the rights that come with it, such as disability or worker's compensation in the event of injury. Unfortunately, it seems there is no alternative in the near future: "If our criminal-justice system had to pay a fair wage for labor that inmates provide, it would collapse," said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News in an interview with the American Prospect. "We could not afford to run our justice system without exploiting inmates.


Joanna Rothkopf

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

California Conservation Camps Prison Prison Labor Wildfires