By Christopher Zoukis
As devastating wildfires sweep through northern California’s wine country, a sizable part of the firefighting forces battling them are volunteers from state prisons, including more than 100 female inmates.
In fact, around 4,000 inmates from California Prisons make up 30% of the state's forest-fighting forces, through their enrolment in a partnership program between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), Cal Fire and the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Other states — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wyoming — also employ inmates to battle fires, but California’s program is the oldest and largest. Under Gov. Earl Warren, California opened Camp Rainbow in 1946, its first “conservation camp” to house inmates trained to fight forest fires by working with civilian fire crews clearing ground for fire breaks to prevent wildfires from spreading. It’s still in service as one of the state’s three women-only camps.
Fighting fires is arduous, uncomfortable and dangerous work; five California inmate-fire fighters have died due to job hazards since the program began, two of them this year, and the first female inmate fatality occurred last year. Occasionally, an inmate will walk away from a conservation camp, but CDCR says that 99% of those who escape a conservation camp or adult community setting are recaptured, usually quickly.
The program only accepts volunteers considered low-risk; it excludes those with histories of arson or violent or sexual crimes, and demands a record of good behavior in prison. Male and female prisoners alike must pass the same demanding physical fitness test — running a mile in nine minutes or less; doing 35 push-ups, five pull-ups, and five chin-ups —since they have similar duties, and complete a three or four-week training course.
When not fighting fires, conservation camp residents perform other fire prevention or conservation work. When summoned to combat a fire, the inmates work in 12 to 14-person crews, and may be given shifts ranging up to 72 hours. They’ll often work alongside civilian fire fighters, carrying similar equipment and wearing similar gear, although their clothing will be orange, not yellow, and will be marked “CDCR.”
CDCR has estimated the program saves the state between $80 million to $100 million each year; inmates participating in it are paid $2 per day once they are assigned to live at a camp, plus $1 per hour when out fighting fires. As low as that pay is (a civilian firefighter makes about $40,000 annually), it’s significantly higher than what other prison jobs pay.
Still, the program has other advantages for inmate participants: they earn time off their sentences while participating; the low-security camps are more relaxed and have greater recreational opportunities and better food than prisons, and they also provide chances to get outdoors and do socially beneficial work.
Some in the state, especially opponents of prison work programs, fear the state may have grown too dependent on the low-cost firefighting help inmates provide. They point, for example, to the objection then-state attorney general, now-U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris raised in 2014, when prison overcrowding was being considered in the courts. She argued reducing the state’s prison population would “severely impact fire camp participation” at a time of dangerous statewide droughts. Today California has over 40 conservation camps for fire-fighting inmates.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.