Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Inmate firefighters have been protecting California from wildfires since World War II when the Cal Fire workforce was depleted due to the draft. In 1942, The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) formed temporary fire camps to increase the number of firefighters. These camps enlisted the aid of prison inmates in clearing firebreaks, maintaining parks, and removing fallen trees and debris.
Inmate firefighter camps have since become permanent through the creation of the Conservation Camp Program. Inmates who volunteer for the program must undergo screening and be deemed “physically fit.” They also must maintain good behavior and participate in a rehabilitative program before being approved. Prisoners who have committed violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and sexual offenses are excluded from the program, as well as arsonists and inmates who have attempted to escape.
During the pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom authorized the early release of low-security and medically high-risk prisoners, many of which were volunteers for the inmate firefighter program. At a time when wildfires are destroying acres of California land, the state needs as many firefighters as they can get. As a result, many people have spoken out about the expedited release of inmates, saying that it is reducing California’s ability to combat the fire crisis.
Mike Hampton, a former corrections officer at an inmate fire camp, is opposed to the COVID-19 discharges, saying that “The inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires. How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?”
While many Californians share Hampton’s perspective, others agree that it would be exploitative to deny release to prisoners during a health crisis only because they are a labor asset. This debate over prisoners’ release has generated discussion about the morality of inmate firefighting programs: Do they prioritize cheap labor over inmate health and safety?
Inmate firefighting is often viewed as a form of prison labor in part because of their low pay, dangerous work environment, and lack of workers’ rights. Prisoners are paid $3.63 per day, plus an additional $1.00 when working with an active fire. The inmates aren’t able to unionize, their wages can be seized by the prison, and they aren’t offered compensation when injured on the job. In addition to this, they work through hazardous conditions. More than 1,000 inmate firefighters required hospital care between June 2013 and August 2018.
“We are the guys they send for the most dangerous missions,” said Francis Lopez, a former inmate firefighter, “We are given the jobs that the machines can’t do.”
Matthew Trattner, a juvenile prison inmate who spent five years in the firefighter program, said that he wasn’t surprised about the number of prisoner injuries because, “We’re at a prison camp, they don’t necessarily pay attention to our physical needs as much as they do actual firefighters.”
Despite the hard conditions, the inmates still volunteer for the job. Francis Lopez, in his interview with the New York Times, explains how firefighting gave him a sense of purpose while serving in prison. Lopez describes seeing signs thanking him for saving homes and thinking, ‘‘Wow, I can do good. I can be a person who is being respected.’’
Legislators view the inmate firefighter program as a way of offering a path towards rehabilitation and are working towards improving access to job opportunities after release from prison. Before this year, inmate firefighters, who undergo the same training programs as certified Cal Fire firefighters, were ineligible for firefighter jobs outside of prison. This was in part because most fire departments require EMT licenses, and these are almost impossible to acquire with a felony conviction. To address this issue, Gavin Newsom passed a bill on September 11, 2020, that grants former inmate firefighters the right to expunge their records and get certified firefighting jobs. Newsom, as he signed the bill into law, stated that "Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter."
Whether or not the inmate firefighting program is an ethical source of labor is up for debate. On one hand, it puts prisoners in positions of danger with low pay and a lack of proper protection from injury. On the other hand, it is a volunteer program that allows inmates to prove their worth in a society that views them as a burden. The issue lies in remembering that although these inmates committed crimes, they are still human. They don’t deserve to be exploited for labor during a pandemic when they don’t pose a threat to society.
An issue similar to the COVID-19 release debate occurred in 2014 when the California prison system was ordered to reduce overcrowding by granting minimum-security inmates with early release. California lawyers argued against the mandate, saying that it would “severely impact fire camp participation.” The California prison system was heavily criticized after this court case because it was clear that they rejected release because they wanted cheap labor and not because they wanted to protect public safety. Although the court later rejected the lawyers’ argument, the case emphasized existing concerns about the inmate firefighter program. By becoming reliant on prison labor, California has put itself in a position where many legislators are tempted to tamper with the Criminal Justice System just so that firefighting turnout is increased. Incarceration should be used as a last resort—not as a method of generating convenient, exploitative labor. If Californian legislators are truly concerned about a lack of firefighters this season, they should continue making these jobs available to former inmates.