Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 4, 2018.

Cellblock to Fireline

California’s inmate wildland firefighter program has drawn heavy criticism in the media, but CAL FIRE and others say concerns are rooted in misconceptions

BY ANGELO VERZONI

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Frank Anaya was working as a wildland firefighter in Southern California in July 2017, cutting a fire line with a chainsaw about two miles from an active wildfire, when he lost his balance on a steep rock outcropping and fell on the running chainsaw. It sliced into his upper thigh, just behind his Kevlar chaps, severing his femoral artery. The bleeding could not be controlled, and Anaya was pronounced dead at the hospital. He was 22.

Related Content

Read “What it’s like to be a California inmate fighting wildfires,” from The Washington Post

Anaya was a California state prison inmate, and the second inmate firefighter to die in last year’s California wildfires. Stories like Anaya’s have in part fueled criticism of the state’s practice of employing inmates—who have been convicted for non-violent offenses and have volunteered for the job—as wildland firefighters. It can be dangerous work that, according to news reports, pays inmates as little as a couple of dollars a day, often with no benefits for their families if they die on the job.

Proponents, however, say the program provides the state with much-needed manpower and inmates with fulfilling work and valuable skills that can translate to post-prison employment in firefighting and other professions.

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This month, as enormous wildfires raged in California, including the largest in state history, the debate around using inmates to fight these fires went mainstream, fueled by a tweet written by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on July 31. The tweet indicated there were more than 2,000 inmate firefighters, including what it called 58 “youth offenders,” currently battling wildfires in the state. The message received over 1,000 comments—by comparison, the department’s three previous tweets each received fewer than five comments—with many users expressing shock and outrage at the concept of using prisoners to fight fires. Some misunderstood that by youth offenders the department meant inmates who had been convicted of crimes when they were under 18 years old, not that they were currently under 18. Inmates must be 18 or older to volunteer for the inmate firefighter program.

In the following weeks, the furor continued to play out on social media websites and in newspaper and magazine articles; The Washington Post, Newsweek, USA Today, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other news organizations all published stories on the topic.

For the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the state’s fire service, which runs the inmate firefighter program along with the corrections department, the debate was nothing new—it usually crops up in some form every wildfire season, a senior CAL FIRE official told NFPA Journal. While the latest discussion shed light on legitimate concerns, it also included what CAL FIRE believes to be serious misconceptions about the program.

“I think people look at these inmates and think back to the early 1900s where you had chain gangs and they were digging trenches, the kind of stuff you see in movies,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, chief of public education for CAL FIRE. “I think that’s a misconception. I think people don’t understand what these inmates are actually doing.”

Slave labor or fair labor?

In 1938, the federal minimum wage was set at 25 cents an hour, or $2 for an eight-hour workday. That’s how much some of the California inmates who volunteer for the inmate firefighter program currently earn, so it’s not surprising there would be critics.

On social media and in news reports, people have called the program “slave labor” because of the seemingly paltry pay. But Tolmachoff disagrees with this label, telling NFPA Journal that it’s decent money for prisoners who would otherwise be making nothing sitting in prison. “To an inmate that’s actually quite a bit of money,” she said.

Prisoners also receive time off of their sentences for serving as firefighters, and those who work in active wildfire areas—on the front lines of the smoke and flames as opposed to cutting fire lines or clearing brush away from the fire—earn an additional $1 an hour. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit public policy think tank that advocates for prison reform, $1 an hour is just over the average pay for prisoners working “jobs in state-owned businesses” in the U.S. The average is 87 cents an hour, with some prisoners making nothing and others making up to about $5 an hour, according to the think tank.

Differences in inmate pay

The debate over the direct compensation for inmate firefighters aside, what hasn’t been reported enough in Tolmachoff’s opinion is the money California spends on inmates in general—about $71,000 a year per inmate, according to the website of the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. In other words, Tolmachoff said, the state isn’t getting its thousands of inmate firefighters for next to nothing, as some news reports have suggested, which have only taken into consideration the compensation inmate firefighters receive. Taking into account the $71,000 a year spent on a typical inmate, and adding the compensation and free firefighting training they receive, the state spends about the same money on an inmate firefighter in a year as they do on the average state firefighter.

Still, with the overwhelming majority of that money not actually going to the inmates themselves, the question remains whether the danger of working in an active fire zone is worth a few dollars a day. “We need to get paid more for what we do,” one woman who served as an inmate firefighter in California told The New York Times last year.

According to program proponents, though, for many of the inmates who participate in the inmate firefighter program, it’s not about the money, but rather the intangible earnings such programs can provide. “It gives them work skills as simple as knowing how to work with other people and being part of a team,” said Faith Berry, a member of NFPA’s Wildfire Division who as a park ranger in San Diego County in the 1990s spent time working with inmate firefighters.

Berry added that program participants weren’t just fighting fires—they also worked on state park projects including building new trails and trimming trees. “A couple of guys told me the work made them feel good,” she said. “They wanted to come back to the park to see the work they had done when they got out of prison.”

Career prospects

In most parts of the country—it can vary by state and sometimes by counties within states—convicted felons are barred from becoming licensed emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and most municipal firefighters today are required to also be EMTs.

That’s a concern raised by critics of inmate firefighting programs, and one acknowledged by CAL FIRE as a legitimate roadblock for offenders who want to pursue firefighting after they leave prison. But CAL FIRE itself doesn’t have that requirement, Tolmachoff said, and the department has in the past hired ex-cons for full-time firefighter positions. In October, a pilot program is set to launch that will also allow 80 inmates to train to become certified firefighters in California.

“The program will turn the Ventura Conservation Camp into a training center for parolees coming out of [the inmate firefighter program] to enroll them in what is basically a fire academy to certify them as firefighters in California,” Tolmachoff said. “It will provide the state with more firefighters and also hopefully reduce recidivism rates, which has been a goal of Gov. [Jerry] Brown.”

Firefighting is not the only job inmates can get after prison using the skills they learned as an inmate firefighter. Some end up working for electrical companies, for example, trimming trees around power lines, Berry said.

As controversial as California’s inmate wildland firefighter program might be, there’s little debate that manpower is needed to fight the country’s growing wildfire problem. A couple of years ago, the manpower took a hit when the state realigned its prison system, placing many low-level offenders who had previously been in state prison in county jails. The move stressed CAL FIRE officials who were forced to scramble to find alternative sources of able-bodied firefighters, according to a 2016 Los Angeles Times article.

The state could once again find itself in such a situation as future efforts to further reduce the prison population are possible. “In the dry, hot, expensive years ahead, officials and voters could choose to implement more [prison] reforms,” an article published in December 2017 in The Atlantic postulated. “If they do, it could mean further stepping up recruitment among the inmates left behind. … Or it could mean finally ending the state’s reliance on prisoners to protect Californians from natural disaster.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images