Who Are California’s Convict Firefighters?

Raging wildfires in Northern California have killed 41 people, with the body count likely to rise in coming days as officials repopulate evacuated areas and make grim discoveries along the way. One element of the battle against the flames has attracted considerable public attention: the state’s continued use of convict labor as a firefighting force.

How many inmates work as firefighters in California? Are they paid? How do they become firefighters? How does California, one of the wealthier and more progressive states in the U.S., justify the use of prison labor? If you’ve been plagued by these questions, we have answers.

California’s inmate firefighters, both men and women, are “minimum custody inmates.” People with certain criminal backgrounds — including sexual assault, arson and violent attempts at escape — may not serve as firefighters.

To participate in the “fire camps” run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, they have to volunteer and pass a screening before they receive several weeks of training to prepare for work on the front lines.

The Conservation Camps, as they’re formally known, have been administered since 1915 — though they grew during World War II, when a shortage of civilian labor increased demand for workers from other sources. At capacity, these camps can house about 4,500 adults and 800 juveniles — yes, juvenile prisoners fight fires in California. And those individuals account for between one third and forty percent of the state’s firefighting force.

If you’ve been watching videos of aircraft dumping fire suppressant and firefighters operating heavy equipment, that’s not the kind of work inmates do. Instead, they cut containment lines. It’s brutal, hard work that includes removing trees and brush and trying to create a defensible line that a fire can’t cross.

Often, inmate firefighters are first on the scene, trying to control conditions before civilian firefighting teams move in. And their work can be fatal.

Inmate teams from Conservation Camps also work on state parks maintenance, fire safety and prevention, flood protection and state-owned buildings maintenance when they’re not fighting fires.

Prisoners say the camps are popular, and are viewed as a highly competitive job. Inmates working in the camps can make more pay than they do inside — and more about that in a minute. They also point out that in a world that often looks down on inmates, the positive feedback from civilian firefighters and the public can feel empowering.

Many add that they enjoy an opportunity to be out in nature, and others claim that the food is better and conditions are more humane than in prison. As for building skills they can use upon release, though, many civilian fire departments don’t accept candidates with felony backgrounds.

But their base pay while at camp is just $2 a day, and they make only $1 an hour while firefighting — in contrast with the up to $100 earned by civilians.

This is far below minimum wage, but inmate labor isn’t counted as “legal employment,” so it’s exempt from minimum wage laws. Like their civilian counterparts, convict firefighters may work for hours or days without rest in peak fire conditions.

Then-Attorney General Kamala Harris commented to ThinkProgress that the wages and working conditions resembled “chain gangs,” and she’s not the only one to make this comparison.

As to California’s justification for the use of convict labor, a tradition with ancient roots? Well, the state uses the same excuse that prisons the world over have: It cuts costs.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation proudly boasts that it saves taxpayers approximately $100 million annually with the use of underpaid convict labor. In fact, the department spoke out against early release when the state was fighting overcrowding, because it worried about losing its “workforce.”

Inmates have been heavily utilized during the recent round of wildfires, something the agency may point to as further justification for prison labor.

Writing for the National Reviewa former prisoner commented that the low pay from correctional labor isn’t only unjust, but also very dehumanizing. Reforming pay to bring it in line with civilian standards requires acknowledging that work is work,  no matter who is performing it. And it would necessitate a costly policy change for the state.

Those who believe prisoners should be treated with dignity think that pay increase is worth it. One way to make up for it could be to abolish the death penalty, which is far more costly than $100 million annually.

Photo credit: Jamie Schaap

41 comments

Marie W
Marie Wabout a year ago

thanks for sharing

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Robert S
Robert Sabout a year ago

Firefighters provide an important role in educating the public regarding fire and safety. But, still sometimes it is very important to take precaution before the incident happens. Like installing of smoke detectors/alarm. It is one of the most effective system for preventing fire. That is why I and my neighbour all had installed smoke detectors outside of our living quarters or within our living quarters by taking help from our local Electricians in Glen Mills PA (https://www.dndenergy.com ) team.

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Leanne K
Leanne Kabout a year ago

Im not sure about this one. I think its a positive role and good for prisoners. Picking up litter wouldnt bring the same self esteem rewards. But it is very very dangerous work. Most of our fire crews are volunteer so I dont think you necessarily have to be paid. But im uneasy with prisoners being used as slave labour. No, im not sure what i think. But good on them for being of such great help.

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Kathryn I
Kathryn Iabout a year ago

This innovative program should be implemented throughout the entire Country. Thanks for posting.

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Joan E
Joan Eabout a year ago

This is a great program for the firefighters and the community.

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Julie C
Julie Cabout a year ago

The West would be in great trouble without these people. It's hazardous and deserves to be paid accordingly.

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Kathryn I
Kathryn Iabout a year ago

This is a seemingly innovative idea, and one which should go Country-wide. Thanks for sharing.

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Kathryn I
Kathryn Iabout a year ago

This is a relatively novel concept, and a great one too!! They should become prevalent in all fifty States. Thank you for sharing.

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Mike R
Mike Rabout a year ago

These men and women need a pay raise.

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Kelsey S
Kelsey S1 years ago

Thanks

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