Inmates Are Risking Their Lives To Fight California Wildfires

While we think slavery is incomparable, the labor from prison inmates who are fighting against wildfires in California is being deemed acts of “modern day slavery”.

What We Know:

  • 2,150 prison inmates are battling on the front lines to tame the flames. Photos and video footage of prisoner firefighters battling the blaze for pennies surfaced and drew outrage from observers.
  • According to Fortune, the prisoners earn between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, plus an additional $1 per hour during active emergency for their potentially life-threatening efforts. During active fires, prisoners work for 24-hour periods followed by 24 hours of rest. The firefighters they work alongside earn an average of $91,000 each year before overtime pay and bonuses.
  • The inmates can also earn reduced sentences. The wages are higher than most other prison jobs, but come with significantly greater risk. “I could be sitting behind the [prison] wall right now, dealing with all the drama that that entails, or I could be out here helping save this part of California because of this disaster,” former inmate firefighter Daniel Erickson told NPR last year.
  • “It’s wrong,” tweeted former secretary of Housing Julián Castro, who is running for president. “If you can save lives serving a sentence, you can save lives when you’re released.” Castro pointed to a new bill in the California state legislature which would allow prisoners to fight fires after their release.
  • The legislation, introduced in March by Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, would ask fire departments to allow applicants with criminal records a chance to fight fires as free people.

Over the past 35 years, six incarcerated firefighters have died as a result of injuries sustained while actively working on containing a fire, according to Alexandra Powell, public information officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.