California inmates are fighting fires with meager pay and preparation. This is modern-day slavery

STATE ISSUES: The state cannot continue putting incarcerated individuals in the path of California’s deadliest fires, justifying inhumane and exploitative working conditions

Alexander Hong/Staff

In the last few months, thousands of firefighters have mobilized to fight the deadliest wildfire in California history. These individuals put their lives on the line, making themselves vulnerable to short- and long-term illnesses from prolonged exposure to heat and smoke. And hundreds of them are paid only $1 an hour for this brutal work, are minimally trained and end their shifts in chains. They are California inmates.

California has been using prisoners to fight wildfires for decades, and this exploitative and underhanded practice has become an integral part of California’s firefighting action plan. And as the state experiences longer fire seasons, it appears that the use of underpaid and overworked inmates will continue to feature heavily in California’s fire response. Essentially, the state will continue to perpetuate this form of modern-day slavery, dismissing the lives of inmates and profiting off of mass incarceration.

Sure, legally, the program is voluntary — no inmate is forced into service. But the nature of the prison system is inherently coercive — inmates are promised reduced sentences for taking on the job. And while the pay is atrocious, especially considering the perilous nature of the work, it is — quite unacceptably — still better than average prison wages.

Inmates earn anywhere from 8 cents per hour in nonindustry jobs to 95 cents per hour in high-paid state-owned business jobs. In offering prisoners this meager compensation, the prison system puts inmates in a position where firefighting work is difficult to turn down — and this is without even taking into account the skewed power dynamics prisoners face. The prison system dehumanizes inmates, exacerbating the inequality pervasive in this nation’s institutions.

After just a week of field training and a week of classroom instruction, inmates are thrown into life-threatening situations. This is a horrifically insufficient amount of preparation compared to what civilian firefighters receive. Civilian firefighters are trained for a minimum of three months, and it’s not uncommon for firefighters to receive up to two years of training. But inmates — some as young as 16 — are fighting the state’s most destructive fires with a fraction of the experience. Not to mention that inmates are four times more likely to incur injuries than professional firefighters, which is unsurprising considering the limited amount of training they’re provided.

The fact of the matter is that incarcerated individuals don’t benefit in the slightest from this dangerous experience. It’s almost impossible for an inmate to obtain employment as a firefighter after being released from prison, as departments across the state often ban applications from individuals with criminal records.

This abuse of inmates’ labor quite literally denies the value of their lives and well-being. It is unacceptable that this system of exploitation persists within a country that claims to value freedom above all.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.