California is using inmates to fight California’s wildfires

California is currently facing two massive wildfires, the first one known as “The Camp Fire” after  it was discovered that the fire started along Camp Creek Road in the Feather River Canyon in California. The wildfire started around 6:30 a.m. on November 8th and as of now, there have been 63 fatalities confirmed. The other wildfire, known as the “Woolsey Fire,” was first spotted in the Woolsey Canyon Road area between the Bang and Black canyon roads. The number of people missing in California is over 600.

As this disaster continues, we turn to the very people who are supposed to protect us from these disasters brought by nature: firefighters. Yet, firefighters and volunteers are not the only people helping contain these wildifires, inmates are too.

California is no stranger to inmate labor as it traces back to the 19th century. In 1946, Governor Earl Warren created the Prisoner Rehabilitation Act that included the state opening a camp in which under the supervision of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the Division of Forestry, housed inmates to clear fire lines.

Now lets talk about the inmates who volunteer to help calm the effects of these fires:

In order for inmates to actually be considered to be able to volunteer, they have to have at least five years or less remaining on their sentence. Once they are deemed eligible for volunteering, they go through a one week program in which they receive field training and receive at least four hours every week of advanced training.

Inmates who volunteer are less likely to be paid medical attention when injured and have a higher chance of dying because of this. While fighting wildfires in California, at least three inmates died between 2016 and 2017. The wildfires are not the sole reason why inmates are in danger of dying or being severely injured. Because they are outside, they are exposed to the natural elements in nature yet, despite both regular firefighters and inmate volunteers being exposed to the same circumstances, inmates are more likely to experience injuries.

Moreover, inmates who volunteer to fight the fires are paid substantially less than actual firefighters and it makes sense, these are people that have committed crimes and should be punished. Yet at the same time, if this is a way in which they can repay society, we must allow them to do so.

Inmates are paid $2 a day and during an active fire, to add on to the $2 they make, they are paid $1  an hour. Under the Conservation Camp program, inmates have to work 24-hour shifts meaning they are bound to become more tired and more prone to injuries.

Now you would think that because inmates are helping society in a way, we would want to reciprocate that and help them out once they are done with their sentence. This is not the case. Despite having experience from helping with natural disasters such as these, inmates find it hard to get hired as firefighters even after going to school for further training.

Not only that, but it is drilled into the minds of inmates as they receive training that after they are released, they should not expect to continue to be a firefighter. This is heartbreaking because inmates can apply what they’ve learned in prison to their life after prison. By not hiring inmates, we are limiting them to not be able to use the invaluable skills they have learned and risk them going back to prison. We should provide inmates with opportunities to integrate back to society, so why not accept them into careers they have experience in?

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