Deadly wildfires have been blazing through California for nearly a month. Spanning more than 600,000 acres, the fire is the largest in the state’s history. Among the thousands of firefighters battling to contain the flames, there are more than 2,000 incarcerated people, including 58 youth, from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) risking their lives. They are earning just $2 a day.
California has long used its prisons as a source of cheap labor to respond to natural disasters; it’s a practice that dates all the way back to World War II. Today, at least half of the people fighting the state’s ever-increasing and worsening wildfires are incarcerated men, women and youth, according to The New York Times. As of 2016, people of color make up 78 percent of California’s prison population; African Americans are 28 percent of the total, while Latinxs account for 43 percent. Nationwide, Black, Latinx and Native people are disproportionately behind bars.
Through the CDCR’s Conservation Camp program, incarcerated people who have no prior records of arson, sexual crimes or escape can volunteer to fight fires. In 43 conservation camps, prisoners are trained in firefighting techniques for two weeks. The program saves California taxpayers approximately $100 million every year, according to the CDCR.
Many people volunteer to escape the prison’s harsh conditions. But they are denied the wages and benefits granted to other firefighters, who receive benefits and a mean annual wage of nearly $52,000. Earning up to $2 a day, plus an extra $1 per hour for active fires, incarcerated people are placed at the front lines in dangerous environments and take on greater risks than the better-paid people who work farther away from the flames.
Per The Atlantic, they work shifts of up to 72 hours to protect property, clear fuel and dig up containment lines, often just feet away from the blaze—and this labor can be fatal. In recent weeks, incarcerated firefighters have been working on 17 wildfires that officials say won’t be contained before September 1.
Many advocates have criticized California’s government for enabling what they call exploitative labor practices. “In my experience, prisoners are so eager for the chance to work and chance to demonstrate their rehabilitation that they’ll accept any work conditions,” Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director at Southern Poverty Law Center, told Newsweek. “But they shouldn’t be exploited by the state. They’re putting their lives on the line like other California firefighters, and they should be paid fairly for a fair day’s work.”
In an ongoing petition addressed to California Governor Jerry Brown, the racial justice advocacy group Color of Change calls on state officials to pay incarcerated firefightres a fair wage, implement safety regulations and create a pathway for them to work as firefighters after their release.
From Color of Change:
Fighting fires is back breaking labor and in the state of California many people who are doing this work have been forced to do so. The state has been exploiting prison labor and giving prisoners little to no options outside of taking on this dangerous work, where they’re making as little as $1/hour.
Essentially when prisoners are paid a fair wage, the government and corporations will be less likely to use prison labor; thus there will be less of an incentive to keep people incarcerated. Because keeping people in prison will just be a financial drain for states and corporations, providing no labor for them to exploit—this could drastically decrease the rate of incarceration in the U.S.