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“Wildfires
have been raging ferociously in California this year. According to
meteorologist Craig Clements at San Jose University, wildfires have also
been much larger than usual. Fire seasons typically run from May to
November in northern California, Napa Valley and Sonoma counties. In the
summer, 100-degree temperatures dry out the grass, and droughts add to
the problem.

In 2017, fires in California were the deadliest since
the beginning of record keeping, with 100,000 people forced to evacuate
and around 75,000 displaced when their homes and businesses were
destroyed. It took more than 11,000 firefighters to battle those blazes.

Officially,
at least 35 to 40 percent of Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting force,
are prison inmate crews, and the number may be even higher. ‘‘Any fire
you go on statewide, whether it be small or large, the inmate hand crews
make up anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total fire personnel,’’
says Lt. Keith Radey, a commander in charge of one of the inmate fire
camps.

About 4,000 inmates each week
fight wildfires alongside civilian firefighters. That number includes
approximately 250 women. There are 43 inmate firefighting camps. The
three camps for women were opened in 1983.

In the fires, women
wear either yellow or orange fire-retardant suits, helmets and
handkerchiefs to cover their mouths and necks. Each one carries 50 to 60
pounds of gear and equipment in her backpack, and some also carry
chainsaws. Crews of 14 people each fight on the front lines.

Firefighting
is dangerous, grinding work requiring endurance and includes injuries
and some deaths. Prison crews in California firefighting bring to mind
chain gangs without the chains.

Prison labor and fires

In 1946, the Conservation Camp Program began using
prison labor to fight deadly fires, under the joint supervision of the
Division of Forestry and the Department of Correction, and later under
the supervision of the California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Nowadays, California’s institutionalized
inmates make license plates, prison uniforms, office furniture for state
employees and anything else the prison may need. They usually earn
between 8 cents and 95 cents per hour.

But inmates in the forestry
program are paid more to fight fires. They can make up to $2.56 a day
in camp, plus $1 an hour when fighting fires, though during training
they may be paid nothing at all.

In comparison, full-time civilian firefighter salaries start around $40,000 yearly or $17 per hour minimum.

In
2014, when California courts took up the issue of overcrowded prisons,
the state attorney general’s office argued against shrinking the number
of inmates because prisoners were needed to fight fires. In 2015, Gov.
Jerry Brown agreed. Other states use prisoner firefighters, but not
nearly on the scale that California does.

Most California inmates
volunteer to fight fires. They must pass a fitness test, and then they
receive as little as three weeks’ training, compared to a three-year
apprenticeship for full-time civilian firefighters.

Prisoners
fighting fires are serving terms for nonviolent, low-level crimes, such
as drug or alcohol-related offenses. Volunteers have to earn the right
to be chosen for “rehabilitation work.” High risks are involved, but
they earn more money than in other prison jobs — in a less violent
atmosphere, in more physical space than a prison cell offers. The risks
are weighed against the same amount of time served inside a correctional
facility.

At-risk women prisoners
Women
prisoners interviewed have given a range of feelings about being in the
forestry program. At firefighters’ camp, they have woodworking areas,
softball fields and libraries. They enjoy being outdoors and having
barbecues with family visits. Children see their parents in a camp
environment rather than inside a restricted prison.

And women may
get to see their children on the outside sooner because their sentences
are reduced due to firefighting credit. For every day they are in a
camp, their sentence is reduced by one day. Some women provide this
labor for years. They resent the hardship and intense physical labor,
but say it is worth the risk.

Since women in the firefighting
camps are available 24 hours a day for work, they are considered a
“resource” for the state. California’s firefighting program saves
taxpayers close to $100 million each year, according to the CDCR. The
cost for housing each inmate in a prison facility is $76,000 a year, as
opposed to using them to fight blazes.

– Dolores Cox, “In battle for freedom, women inmates fight blazes In battle for freedom, women inmates fight blazes.” Workers World. July 29, 2018

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