Nearly 4,000 prisoners are currently battling wildfires across California, with inmates making up nearly 40 per cent of the total firefighters deployed across the state.
Given climate change, the shockingly high number of inmates are required to battle the fires, but they make just $2 per day in the program and $2 an hour when they’re on a fire line.
Many prisoners, however, volunteer for the highly dangerous work in the hope of earning shorter sentences – each day of firefighting earns the inmates a two-day sentence reduction.
But, given that this year California has had over 5,300 wildfires (1,000 more than the five-year average), you can kind of understand why the authorities want all hands on deck for this one.
The prisoners, led by a fire captain, are trained to clear any brush that could potentially trigger a fire, as well as battle the flames when a blaze does occur. The teams work in shifts of 24 hours, followed by a 24-hour break.
The group is made up of non-violent inmates convicted for low-level felonies. Inmates convicted for arson or sex crimes are generally excluded.
Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said:
This is a reward for many of these individuals. They’re outside the walls, doing good work, learning a skill that they may not get behind bars. You can’t deny how dangerous this work is. But there have been only two or three serious injuries and no deaths among inmate firefighters over the past two years.
Speaking to Buzzfeed, Demetrius Barr, an inmate convicted of dealing crack who is now on the fire line, added:
It’s a little bit — not freedom, but you can move a little bit. You feel like you’re doing something, other than just sitting in jail. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.
Troublingly though, Barr also referred to the program as “beyond slavery”, and of 45 inmate firefighters interviewed by Toronto sociologist Philip Goodman, 10 called their time in the fire camps “slavery”, while seven referred to it as “rehabilitation”.
It’s estimated that the program gives California taxpayers an annual savings of $80 million and the debate over whether the program is a good idea or a bad one is likely to rage on.