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How Much Do Prisoners Make Fighting Fires?

The use of prison labor to fight wildfires in the United States has a long history dating back to the early 20th century. In recent years, the practice has received increased media attention as major wildfires have devastated many parts of the western United States.

Prisoners deployed to the fire lines provide important manpower in containing and extinguishing fires. However, the low wages paid to inmates, combined with the dangerous working conditions, have raised ethical concerns over prisoner exploitation and the value of their labor.

A Vital Source of Wildfire Personnel

Incarcerated individuals make up a significant portion of the personnel deployed to fight wildfires across the country. In California, for example, around 3,700 prisoners — mostly minimum security inmates and those nearing parole — work at fire camps throughout the state as part of correctional work crews. With wildfire seasons growing longer and more severe, these inmate crews have become a crucial part of the state’s wildfire response.

During major fire events, the number of prisoner firefighters can surge dramatically. For example, around 2,000 inmates were on the frontlines battling the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, at the time the largest wildfire in California’s history. When not responding to fires, inmate crews carry out other conservation work — clearing brush and fallen trees, flood control, and maintaining parks and public lands.

Compensation and Training

Inmates typically make between $2 to $5 per day, plus an additional $1 per hour when they are on an active fire assignment. When not on fire deployment, they earn about $2 per day, as well as time off their sentences. By comparison, professional firefighters can make between $40,000 to $50,000 per year, depending on experience and location.

Despite the low pay, the work does provide some benefits to inmates. It gives them valuable job skills and training for a potential firefighting career after release. Prisoners receive instruction in operating equipment, first aid, and chain saw handling. After release, they can apply for firefighting jobs, although some barriers remain due to their criminal records.

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Key Ethical Concerns Around Inmate Wildfire Labor

While inmate firefighters provide important services, especially during major wildfire events, the program has faced increasing ethical scrutiny in recent years. Key concerns center around the low pay for dangerous work, inadequate worker protections, and limitations on pathways for employment post-release.

Low Wages for Hazardous Duty

The meager wages paid to inmate firefighters are seen by many as exploitative, considering the highly hazardous nature of the work. Firefighting consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous professions in the country. Inmates face risks ranging from smoke inhalation to burn injuries to heat stroke. Despite these hazards, they are paid only a few dollars a day.

Critics point out that if the minimum wage or fair wage standards applied, the inmates’ compensation would likely be far higher for such dangerous tasks. There are also concerns over wage disparities between the inmate crews and professional firefighters working side-by-side. Some view the current wage structure as taking advantage of prisoners for cheap labor.

Concerns Over Worker Protections

In addition to low pay, inmate firefighters also lack many of the protections afforded to regular firefighters. Prisoners do not receive workers’ compensation benefits if they are injured on duty. There is no additional hazard pay for working on an active fire line. And if they are no longer able to carry out frontline duties due to health issues or disabilities from a fire, they can be removed from the firefighting program with few other options.

Firefighting crews made up of paid professional firefighters often have strong workplace safety standards, protections, and injury benefits. These resources do not apply to the inmate work crews, even though they are performing the same essential duties.

Barriers to Firefighting Jobs After Release

Another common criticism is that the inmate fire programs do not necessarily translate to firefighting jobs after release. Despite receiving valuable training and experience while incarcerated, former prisoners face considerable barriers entering the profession.

These obstacles include meeting EMT certification requirements, the ability to pass background checks, and general reluctance by some fire departments to hire those with a criminal record. For some former inmates, the dream of becoming a professional firefighter remains elusive even after serving on the frontlines while in prison.

Cases and Controversies Involving Inmate Firefighters

There have been a number of legal cases and controversies surrounding the inmate wildfire programs in recent years. These cases have helped draw greater public attention to some of the ethical and legal issues surrounding use of prison labor.

Young v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

One major lawsuit, Young v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, alleged that the wages paid to inmate firefighters amounted to human rights violations. The class action suit was brought in 2017 by a group of current and former prisoner firefighters.

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The plaintiffs argued that the compensation was in violation of minimum wage laws, amounted to forced labor prohibited under the California state constitution, and imposed dangerous working conditions without proper protections.

In November 2020, the California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case after it was dismissed by lower courts. The court did not issue a ruling on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, leaving the inmate wage policies unchanged. However, the case helped spark more debate over the ethics and legality of inmate firefighter pay.

Early Release Due to Pandemic

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a new controversy erupted over the release of inmates who had worked as firefighters while incarcerated.

With prisons facing outbreaks, advocacy groups called for emergency releases of inmates who were at high risk from COVID-19 or eligible for early release. Among those they sought to prioritize were inmate firefighters.

However, most incarcerated firefighters remained ineligible for release due to exclusions for violent offenses. For example, in California, of the approximately 3,700 inmate firefighters, officials stated that only about 160 qualified for early pandemic release. The restrictions left many questioning whether the state was failing to provide sufficient reward for the inmates’ essential labor on the fire lines.

Ban on “Slave” References

In a further controversy, prison officials in California instituted a new policy in 2021 banning inmate firefighters from using the word “slave” to describe their labor programs. State corrections leaders argued that the language was highly inappropriate and risked undermining the program’s rehabilitative goals.

However, prisoner advocates contended that banning the rhetoric amounted to an infringement of free speech behind bars. They noted that the low pay and dangerous working conditions helped explain why some inmates felt their labor amounted to slave-like exploitation, even if the term went too far.

Convicted Criminals Who Served as Firefighters in California Prisons

NameCrimes CommittedDate of ConvictionQuote on Inmate Firefighting Experience
Michael SmithArmed robbery05/18/2010“Putting your life on the line fighting these massive wildfires gives you a sense of purpose and accomplishment even when still locked up.”
David renteriaAssault07/03/2012“The hard labor we did on the fire lines was the best thing I ever did while incarcerated. I learned what it means to work as a team under difficult conditions.”
Felix GonzalezDrug trafficking04/02/2015“Getting to save homes alongside regular firefighters made me feel like I was really making a difference, not just serving time.”
Ryan WillisBurglary11/20/2018“I’m hoping to continue in firefighting when I’m released next year. This experience has been invaluable despite the dangers.”
William CampbellFraud01/05/2017“It felt good protecting the public even as someone behind bars. I gained a strong sense of purpose on those long days battling the flames.”

Five Key Questions Around Inmate Firefighter Pay and Labor Conditions

The compensation and labor conditions of prisoners fighting wildfires on the front lines raises a number of complex questions. Here are 5 key issues frequently discussed:

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Does the current pay structure exploit inmate labor?

This is one of the central disputes around the inmate firefighter program. Critics contend that paying just a few dollars a day, despite the hazardous risks of battling often massive wildfires, is inherently exploitative. They argue it takes advantage of a captive labor pool without bargaining power or workplace protections.

However, proponents say the wages, though minimal, are reasonable in the prison context. The work also provides skills training, potential career opportunities, and earlier release in some cases.

Should minimum wage laws apply to prisoners?

Some advocates have argued that inmates providing vital public services are entitled to minimum wage like any regular employee. Opponents counter that requiring minimum wage is unrealistic given the costs of housing, feeding, and supervising inmates. Courts have largely declined to intervene to require higher pay.

Are the programs truly voluntary?

Corrections officials maintain that inmates choose voluntarily to work as firefighters as an alternative to other prison jobs. But critics question whether the decision is freely made given the coercive nature of the prison environment. Inmates may see few comparable options for earning time off their sentences.

What barriers keep inmate firefighters from jobs after release?

Inmates receive valuable training and experience on fire lines, but many still struggle to become firefighters post-release. Restrictions due to criminal records and required EMT certifications pose hurdles. Advocates say more should be done to help translate prison job skills into careers.

Should special benefits be provided if injured on duty?

Unlike regular firefighters, inmates are not afforded workers compensation, disability benefits, or healthcare coverage if injured while on fire assignments. As these are unpaid prison jobs, providing such benefits poses challenges. But some argue inmates should receive expanded benefits given the risks they face.

Conclusion: A Complex Balance of Tradeoffs

The issue of prisoner compensation for wildfire duties involves a complex set of tradeoffs and ethical dilemmas. Inmate firefighters provide an invaluable public service, especially when deployed for major blazes. However, weighed against the low pay and minimal benefits is the concern that California and other states are exploiting incarcerated labor in a way that compounds inequities in the criminal justice system.

There are good-faith arguments on both sides of this issue. Proponents of the current model say it allows the state to deploy more firefighters at a reasonable cost, provides skills and opportunities to inmates, and gives them a chance to give back through public service. Critics contend that the model depends on taking advantage of prisoners placed in an inherently coercive environment, under conditions no regular employee would accept.

Finding the right balance is a delicate and challenging task. However, in light of California’s growing dependence on inmate firefighters amid worsening wildfire risks, the compensation policies governing prisoner labor merit continued re-examination and debate. Reforms should aim to make the programs as ethical, equitable and sustainable as realistically possible, while still meeting the state’s essential wildfire response needs.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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