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The internet sees ‘volunteer’ inmate firefighters as nothing short of slave labor

For a 24-hour firefighting shift, a California inmate will earn only $26.


Alex Dalbey


Published Nov 14, 2018   Updated May 21, 2021, 1:40 am CDT

While some people are celebrating the heroism of the California inmates working to fight Camp Fire, others see it as a clear example of slave labor in the U.S. prison system.

Two-hundred inmate firefighters have joined the thousands of professional firefighters in trying to combat Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history, which now has a death toll of 48 people.

The inmates are trained in one of 44 “Conservation Camp” locations across 29 California counties, where they receive the same training given to seasonal California firefighters. Despite receiving the exact same training, the inmates are only paid $1 an hour for their work, in addition to $2 a day, and earning time off their sentence. For comparison, the minimum hourly pay for non-inmate firefighters is $17.70 an hour. The inmate firefighters work 24-hour shifts, as many firefighters do in times of crisis. However, the inmates do not receive any overtime pay differential, unlike their counterparts.

Those who distrust this program also often worry about the involvement of “youths.” While some states like Washington bring in teens as young as 16 into their inmate firefighting programs, California does not. A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told the Daily Dot that in California the inmate firefighting program for youths is only for offenders ages 18 to 23.

However, this does not alleviate most of the concerns people have about the morality of such labor. In August, inmates across the country engaged in a strike, demanding an end to penal slavery. This discussion of modern slavery has been reinvigorated by the inmate firefighters who are risking their lives for a fraction of minimum wage.

One of the arguments for the program is that it prepares inmates for life after their sentence is over. The California Department of Corrections told the Daily Dot, “Participants who successfully complete the program will be qualified to apply for entry-level firefighting jobs with local, state, and federal firefighting agencies.”

However, according to USA Today, an EMT license is needed to become a firefighter in almost every county in California, and people with criminal records are usually denied such a license. While the inmates may have the skills and experience to work as a firefighter, most won’t be able to because of this.

There is additional evidence that what drives the program is not a desire to do good by the inmates, but to save the state money through their labor. In 2014, California attempted to halt inmates’ ability to earn time off their sentences through labor, because it would reduce the number of inmate firefighters. In other words, it appears they wanted to keep people in prison specifically so they can pay them $1 an hour to risk their lives.

H/T the Root

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*First Published: Nov 14, 2018, 11:54 am CST