Firefighting Prisoners Exploited for Cheap Labor

California fires causing a blackout|Photo Courtesy of BBC

With the California fires reaching a record high number of acres, 3.2 million to be specific, burned,  controversial alternative sources of labor (prisoners),   have been equipped. 

The inmate firefighters are not unconditioned to being exploited, as they are paid an average of 23 cents per hour, according to Yale News, for strenuous labor. For firefighting specifically, inmates are being paid less than 10 percent of minimum wage, 1-2 dollars an hour, for a job that not only requires a maximum amount of endurance and effort but may cost them their lives. 

Despite the heinous nature in which the state is using their inmates’ initiative to do good for their own economic gain, from an inmate’s perspective, the job is the honorable opportunity of a lifetime. 

Prisoners wearing orange suits|Courtesy of ABC 10 News

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Ricardo Martin, who became an inmate firefighter while serving a seven-year sentence for driving while intoxicated and injuring another motorist in a crash said in an interview with the NY Times. “But we took special pride in being able to actually save people’s homes.”

The taxing labor is no doubt transformative for people who have been locked away from society behind concrete walls, as it gives them an opportunity to give back what they took from their communities.

The issue at hand is not the prisoners fighting the fires, it’s the manner in which they are employed. The program in place for the firefighting inmates is California’s Conservation Camp Program. As stated on the official website of the program, “The primary mission of the Conservation Camp Program is to support state, local and federal government agencies as they respond to emergencies such as fires, floods, and other natural or manmade disasters.” Despite the way in which the program is advertised by the state, it’s not a real-world rehabilitation opportunity. The practically sacrificial system was put in place because the state needed more people.

Incarcerated firefighter clearing the area|Photo courtesy of the NY Times

Evidently, prisoners appreciate the opportunity and in fact, look forward to it. However, the state has used this ambition to do good as an opportunity for economic gain through free/cheap labor; since the task is voluntary, the state feels the inmates are not required to be paid fair amounts. 

The fact that prisoners voluntarily fight the fires does not mean the job is any less dangerous or intensive. Regular firefighters are paid an average annual income between 50,000 to 70,000, which transcends the mere 1 dollar hourly pay for the inmate firefighters.

Committing a crime against society does not make one beyond reform, in fact, fair treatment from the state would lead to a higher initiative to do good from those that have done bad in the past. The program should not be taken away, however, they should be reformed to include fair and livable wages. The inmates are to be looked at as people risking their lives for the citizens around them, no matter their past actions. 

Incarcerated firefighters standing in the center of the fire|Photo Courtesy of Independent CO UK

They are already paying the price for their actions through incarceration; profiting off their imprisonment is not a necessary or even constructive part of rehabilitation. Prisoners are still people, and some have proven themselves willing and capable of giving back to society. We must pay them a living wage so that they can build themselves back up upon re-entrance into society.

Written by Roaa Alkhawaja

Co-Editor in Chief and Senior, Ro'aa Alkhawaja, loves herself a good week of reading, baking, tea-drinking, and eating more Nutella sandwiches than should be humanly possible.

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  1. I completely agree!! $1.00 an hour that’s insane, they may as well just say “risk your life for an hour to save millions of others and I’ll give you half a snickers bar.”

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