Four thousand of the fifteen thousand people fighting wildfires in California this season aren't professional firefighters. They're men and women serving out their state prison terms by working full-time in fire crews, under a state program called "Conservation Camps."
San Francisco-based news station KQED traveled with one 16-inmate fire crew, and the professional firefighter leading them, as they fought the Bully Fire, a 22,600-acre wildfire that was finally contained last week in Shasta County (north-central California). They witnessed inmates carrying around 100 pounds of gear while hiking several miles to get in and out of the fire zone. And inmates told them about days where the temperature was 115 degrees, "not including the fire." When not fighting fires, they're at base camp or conducting community service projects — not living in the prison.
The program is clearly good for the state of California, which saves more than $80 million a year on wages for firefighters by using inmates instead. But is it good for the prisoners?
$2 a day instead of $34 an hour
The inmates work in 24-hour shifts, which is traditional for firefighters. But while the average firefighter in California makes $34 an hour for his or her labor, the Conservation Camp inmates make only $2 a day.
That's "not an actual wage," says John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center. It's "so far below poverty that it's just laughable."
The pay is clearly exploitative. But it's also par for the course. "Prison industry," Roman says, is "really about defraying correctional expenditures. And that's really unfortunate because we know that vocational trainings can really help people become productive citizens when they return, and we could be doing this in a much, much better way."
Job training is good; career training is better
What makes a prison labor program useful, says Roman, is less how much inmates are paid — it's whether they get training that's going to help them get employed after they leave prison. If inmates are going to stay out of prison once they get released, they're going to need skills that they didn't have when they entered prison the first time.
Most prison labor programs don't do this. In fact, says Roman, many programs "tend to recruit inmates who already have a skill to use that skill" — so they're not training anyone at all. Additionally, prisons don't want labor programs to "compete with private industry," so they avoid any labor that would give inmates experience in high-demand private-sector industries.
On this front, Roman says, the California firefighting program is better than most. "It's doing two things very well," he says. "It's teaching people a skill that they wouldn't have already had, and it's keeping them out of a correctional facility."
But it's missing the third element that Roman says a good prison-labor program needs: training not just for a job, but for a career. Firefighting is "a low-wage job, and a seasonal job." It's not for everyone — the California government says that three to five percent of prisoners who participate get jobs in firefighting afterwards, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Most of the inmates KQED talked to said they would not pursue firefighting careers after they got released. And their the skills they learn in the program won't necessarily be applicable to other jobs.
Even in a best-case scenario, Roman says, "fighting forest fires is really a job, it's not really a career. And if we want to keep people from returning to prison, we need to get them on a career path. We need to teach them skills that don't just create one opportunity when they're released, but create one opportunity, another opportunity, and another opportunity."
The biggest obstacle to that, Roman says, is relatively basic literacy and math skills. "If you want to be a carpenter, If you want to be a machinist, you probably need something like an 8th-grade education in math." And in prisons where Roman has worked on programs, up to 80 percent of prisoners don't have that. So even the best skills programs might help the fraction of prisoners who already have the most education, but most prisoners will be going back to their communities with the elementary-level skills they had when they left. And with that little education, "life on the outside is going to be exceptionally difficult, and you're going to end up back in prison."
The best of terrible options
The firefighting program doesn't fix that problem. But Roman stresses it's still better than most of the prison work programs out there — and the inmates who participate are far better off than most prisoners. "Their prison experience is better, their prospects for future employment are better."
That doesn't mean that the program is necessarily humane or justifiable. In addition to the wage issue, Roman posits a "moral question: should people in the care of the state be put in jobs that put their lives at risk?"
But the sad truth is that the choice California inmates face right now is between a job that puts their lives at risk, and a prison where their lives won't necessarily be protected either. Firefighting may be dangerous, but it's easy to see why inmates think it's better than sitting in a cage.