Inmate firefighter illustration

(Griselda Ruiz / Daily Titan)

Massive California fires have devastated landscapes and engulfed wildlife more frequently in recent years. But, there is a shortage of firefighters hosing down blazing fires. 

As a result, 40% of those who fight fires are inmates and incarcerated individuals with no clear professional path to becoming firefighters. The lack of recognition to provide towards the safety, pay and future employment for incarcerated firefighters is not only unethical but an opportunity California must address. 

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports that there have been 7,883 wildfires, 2,487,887 acres burned and 3,629 structures burned or destroyed in 2021. California, by far, has the most wildfires in the country, with several active wildfires burning as of Oct. 6. 

“Each year, California's incarcerated firefighters provide approximately 3 million person-hours responding to fires and other emergencies and are paid between $2 a day and $2 an hour when on the fireline,” according to a peer-reviewed journal from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The pay for incarcerated firefighters is unacceptable, considering all the work they have to do to protect the state and risking their own lives. 

Since 2017, three incarcerated firefighters have been killed while fighting fires on the front lines. According to the nonprofit organization Color of Change, incarcerated firefighters are not protected under any safety regulations and often return from the fires with broken ankles, arms, burns and suffer from extreme exhaustion.

The labor that incarcerated firefighters endure is grueling, and shockingly, when the inmates are released, they are not allowed to become firefighters until they have completed their parole which could take years. A recent PBS report found that many departments require full EMT certification, which, by state law, many felons cannot access. 

Despite the amount of training, hands-on experience and willingness to work in the fire department, inmates have little to no chance of ever becoming firefighters when they are released. The state exploits their labor when they are imprisoned. Yet, the moment they are released, the state does not recognize the hard work they performed in protecting communities all across California. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently passed AB 2147, which is geared toward helping formerly incarcerated firefighters. The bill will allow individuals to present themselves before a court and request to have their criminal records expunged. However, the ultimate power lies in the judge’s hands, and California's exploitation of incarcerated labor is ongoing. 

For many, this bill will have little effect on eliminating obstacles. According to The Atlantic, “The bill makes no formal attempts to gather data on whether it will benefit formerly incarcerated firefighters.” The root cause of the issue is how California has exploited inmates for years, and this bill does little to change prison labor practices. 

The solution lies in providing more benefits for inmates that volunteer to fight fires. There should be safety guidelines in place for those that are fighting fires and increased pay. Ensuring the safety of those who are risking their lives in the hopes of protecting the lives of others should be obvious. 

Inmates are paid next to nothing for their work to protect forests, homes and people from the devastating fires that ravage California every year. According to the corrections department, fire-camp programs save California taxpayers about $100 million a year. By paying the incarcerated firefighters meager amounts, the corrections department uses the savings to justify exploitation.

The inmates who risk their lives to protect Californians from destruction and death should be compensated for their work, provided safety and given a supportive path toward becoming firefighters upon release. The exploitation of these individuals is a gross misuse of power by the state and a blatant disregard for human decency and respect.

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