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Prisoners forced to fight fires in California likened to slave labor

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As California struggles to contain more than 15 forest fires, including the largest one in recorded state history, a perhaps unexpected group of state residents is playing a key role: prisoners. Incarcerated Californians have been helping to battle wildfires—since World War II—and, as of 2017, made up nearly a third of the state’s forest-fighting force. In a July 31 tweet, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation praised the “more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders” working to contain the current fires. And, as of 2017, there were about 250incarcerated women firefighters in the state.

Yet not everyone is comfortable with the program as it currently operates, and the department’s tweet was met with outrage and sarcasm from other Twitter users. “Loving the child slave labor aspect of this story, very inspirational,” snarked one individual. “[A]nd then, after that on the job experience and training, be barred from working in the field after release! yaaay! what an exciting future.”

One concern raised by the public is the way the department characterizes the “voluntary” nature of the firefighting force. Offenders in California can earn two days off their sentence for every one served fighting fires. That makes joining the program especially attractive to mothers and others eager to return to their families—but may also make their decision-making process less than voluntary.

Deirdre Wilson served three and a half years in prison and worked as a landscaper at a women’s fire camp in San Diego, where prisoners are located in order to more easily respond to fire emergencies. “Mywhole purpose was to get back to my children, as it is for so many people that go to fire camp, is to reduce your time to get out and be with your families,” she told nonprofit news outlet Democracy Now on Thursday. “We didn’t volunteer to go to prison… So it’s really not truthful to say it’s volunteer.”

Then there is the issue of pay. Salaried firefighters in California earn $74,000 a year plus benefits. Meanwhile, incarcerated firefighters make $2 per day when they are in the fire camps, plus an additional $1 per hour when they’re out fighting a fire—leading some prisoners’ rights advocate to charge that the conditions prisoners work under amount to slave labor. The state saves an estimated $100 million annually by employing prisoner firefighters at cheap rates, according to data provided by the California Department of Correctionsand Rehabilitation. 

Finally, there is what happens to prisoners after they are released. In some states, including Arizona, incarcerated firefighters are allowed to start careers in the industry once they are released; the same isn’t true in California. That’s because prisoners don’t receive sufficient training to apply to the California Department of Forestry and Protection for employment upon release. Moreover, in California, people with criminal records are not able to obtain EMT licenses, which are important in terms of applying for firefighting posts. 

But that may soon be changing. In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown proposed spending $50 million to provide job training for prisoners, including $26.6 million to enable a group of 80 parolees to become firefighters. The California legislature approved the funding in June, although it is unclear when the program will actually get off the ground.

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