Calif. Inmate Firefighters Hailed As ‘Heroes’ Are Only Worth $1 An Hour

One probably does not typically associate wildfires with income inequality or the prison industrial complex.

Not only are middle-class and lower-income Californians seeing their homes go up in smoke while their affluent neighbors, many celebrities, are employing private firefighters to protect them and their mansions.

The deadly Camp and Woolsey fires that have destroyed more than 100,000 acres and taken at least 77 lives are also helping expose another ugly reality–prison slave labor.

According to spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Alexandra Powell, 3,700 inmates work at 44 fire camps across the state.

And they’re being required to take on the most dangerous, arduous tasks–for just $1 an hour.

Democracy Now! traveled to the Delta Conservation Camp, about an hour north of San Francisco, in September to interview incarcerated firefighters just getting off a 24-hour shift fighting the Napa County Snell Fire.

Assistant Camp Commander, Sgt. Steven Reeder, told Amy Goodman:

“The inmate firefighters are the backbone of Cal Fire. They do all—they get the toughest assignment there is, out there…They get the toughest assignments in the worst conditions, 110 degrees in the middle of the sun, carrying in—wearing two layers of clothing, carrying in 40 pounds of gear. And then they have to carry all their food and water for a 24-hour shift, and then swing a tool the whole time.”

Capt. Tracy Snyder, Correctional Captain with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), added:

 “They [inmates] do an excellent job for the state of California. When you see the devastation in Santa Rosa and Napa last year, and Montecito down in Southern California with the Thomas Fire, these guys, as the sergeant said, they’re the backbone. They do a great job. A great job. And I appreciate them.”

In August 2017, the New York Times reported the story of a 22-year-old female inmate killed less than two months before the end of her three-year sentence.

35-year-old La’Sonya Edwards told The Times:

‘‘The pay is ridiculous. There are some days we are worn down to the core. And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.’’

Yet the state feels they are worth only a dollar and hour.


According to WBUR, inmates, who comprise almost 40 percent of California’s firefighters, save the state $100 million per year.

This is not a job forced upon inmates; participation is voluntary, and, for time off their sentences, minimum-custody inmates have to earn the right to work through maintaining nonviolent records and have five years or fewer remaining on their sentences.

Convicted rapists and arsonists are disqualified.

Inmates begin at $2 per day during training before working their way to $1 per day once they are actively engaged in firefighting efforts.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, reported to WBUR that inmate firefighters are a “uniquely vulnerable part of the workforce,” adding:

“When prisoners do volunteer to work, it’s especially important that we make absolutely sure that they’re making a free and uncoerced and truly voluntary choice. And that’s especially important when the work they’re doing is very dangerous, like fighting wildfires.”

Some inmates report that fighting fires is a coveted job that permits incarcerated individuals to challenge themselves and spend time outside.

Amika Mota was a prisoner who took advantage of the “transformative” experience that provided her a reprieve from prison’s drugs, violence and abuse, back in 2012.

Despite learning valuable skills and being interested in making firefighting a career upon her release, Mota recalls learning fire departments do not hire ex-felons.

Mota said:

“It had been really ingrained in me by the folks that trained me that it was not possible.”

The Bakersfield Fire Department, for example, disqualified applicants convicted of a felonies.

Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Tony Imbrenda confirmed felonies and some misdemeanors are grounds for disqualification.

Amika Mota added:

“I also begin to really look at the injustice of what it looks like to be this massive labor force for the state of California that’s getting paid pennies on the dollar. We should be doing a lot more to make sure that folks are re-entering in a positive way.”

Moreover, since inmates have no worker protections and are not permitted to unionize, prison officials have the right to seize their money.

Earlier this year, California legislators debated a bill that would have prohibited local agencies from denying certification because of criminal history.

Legislators instead decided to pass a bill to allow data to be compiled on those being denied.

Image credit: Flickr

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