Prison Firefighting Program Pays a Dollar an Hour to Fight California Wildfires

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our coverage of the California wildfires with a look at who’s actually fighting the fires, and it may just surprise you. In addition to roughly 7,000 full-time and seasonal California firefighters, the state relies on about 3,500 prisoners, including many women, to battle the blazes. The California Department of Corrections tweeted last week that at least 2,000 prisoners are currently fighting the wildfires burning across the state, including 58 youth offenders. Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown thanked the firefighters on the front lines, including those who are incarcerated.

GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN: You have heard there is a tremendous effort fighting these fires, and I want to personally thank all of the firefighters who are on the line — the members of CAL FIRE, also the National Guard and the thousands of inmates who are also on the line fighting to protect lives and bring these fires to a quick close to the extent that’s at all possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Prisoner firefighters live in one of 43 low-security field camps throughout the state and are routinely called upon to fight fires. Prison firefighters earn time off of their sentences for good behavior, typically two days off for each day served. But critics of the program say the state is exploiting prisoners’ eagerness to earn time for early release. While salaried firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $74,000 a year plus benefits, prisoners earn just two dollars per day with an additional dollar per hour when fighting active fire. According to some estimates, California avoids spending about $80 million to $100 million a year by using prison labor to fight its biggest environmental problem.

For more, we’re joined by two women, Romarilyn Ralston, a member of the…

Read more