Segments of the incarcerated population of California State prisons have spent decades fighting fires for the state as part of the conservation (fire) camps. In fact, prison fire camps have played an even more crucial role in recent years as the number of fires and their intensity levels have increased. Last week, however, as fires raged in Northern California, “hundreds of …inmate firefighters were absent from the fire lines,” The New York Times reports. They had been sent home as part of Governor Gavin Newsom’s early release program to protect incarcerated people from the coronavirus. 

Reports The Times:

That has highlighted the state’s dependence on prisoners in its firefighting force and complicated its battle against almost 600 fires, many which continued burning across Northern California on Saturday. Experts worry that dry thunderstorms forecast to begin on Sunday could wreak more havoc, further stretching the resources needed to fight what are now the second- and third-largest fires in modern state history.

Critics of the prison fire program argue that the practice is “a cheap and exploitative salve,” according to The Times. Instead, they believe the program “should be replaced with proper public investment in firefighting.” 

According to The Times:

The larger debate in California is whether the state, which has the largest inmate firefighter program in the country, should be employing prisoners to fight fires in the first place. Incarcerated firefighters in California are paid $1 an hour when they are on the front lines, leading some to describe it as slave labor. They work in treacherous conditions, with six inmate firefighters dying over the past three and a half decades, including one from the state’s female contingent of incarcerated firefighters.

Some people, on the other hand, believe prison labor is “essential” when it comes to fighting annual California wildfires. Mike Hampton, a former corrections officer who worked for decades at an inmate fire camp, spoke to The Times about his belief that the program is crucial. “The inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires,” he said. “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?”

Gov. Newsom firmly believed that the state faced a far greater threat with COVID-19 outbreaks inside prisons. The Times reports:

Across the United States there have been 112,436 infections of inmates and correctional officers and 825 have been killed by the virus, according to a New York Times database. In four of the six prisons that train incarcerated firefighters, there have been more than 200 infections each among inmates and staff members, according to The Times.

Newsom was already planning to scale back the prison firefighting program. The California state budget, which passed over the summer, according to The Times, “calls for closing eight inmate fire camps, which the governor’s office estimates will save $7.4 million.” 

Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wyoming also use the services of incarcerated people to fight fires, but California employs the largest numbers of people for their fire camps, The Times reports.