Fighting forest fires for the price of a chocolate bar

By Staff Writer Gabriella Barthe.

Fires rage through the California hills as the Camp Fire in Butte County becomes the deadliest wildfire in the history of the state. With officials struggling to maintain and contain the situation, the state has been relying on help from inmates. 

The inmate volunteer fire fighting program is not new for California – it dates back to 1915 – but back in the day is was literally a labor camp.  The fire fighting program itself was officially started in 1945.  

Inmates who are not considered for this program include: those committed of arson, sexual offenses, those with medical issues, or with active warrants. In other words, you need to be a minimum custody inmate. Someone who has done minor crimes.  

This program is projected to save the state roughly $100 million a year. You heard that right $100 million a year. How could they save this much money you ask? 

Inmates serving in these programs are being paid a base salary of $2 a day plus an additional $1 an hour. This means for an 8-hour shift, inmates could be expected to only make $10. That’s the minimum wage in Massachusetts. 

Think about that for a moment – inmates in California are being paid to fight dangerous forest fires for 8 hours and are being paid the same amount of money as a 17 year old working the Dunkin drive through. While there’s nothing wrong with working minimum wage, there is something wrong with not being paid an actual wage. 

While many would argue these inmates are being paid in time off of their sentence, it is easy to see where this argument falls short. In a way, this can be considered bribery. Inmates will take jobs they don’t want to try to get out of prison early.  

For those who argue that they are paying for their stay in the prison, what about those who are not working in these programs? There are a limited number of inmates in this program which means many aren’t given the same opportunities. 

When you look into it, these programs teach skills needed to be a firefighter. Though, there is no guarantee that inmates will receive jobs when they eventually are out of incarceration. In fact, these programs rarely lead to jobs in the field. 

In order to become a fire fighter, persons must be a licensed EMT. Though, the EMT certification board more often than not will deny those with criminal backgrounds. Due to this, it doesn’t matter if inmates are taught these skills as they aren’t going to be useful to them. 

Though what is likely the biggest concern is the fact that these individuals are being put in harms way and are being given pennies for doing so.  

The government paying workers with a glimpse of freedom and enough money to buy a sandwich from their commissary is frankly unethical. If anything, paying inmates so little to do hard labor can be considered indentured servitude.  

Though the money isn’t the main focus it’s the fact that officials are okay with putting inmates in harms way in a manner that isn’t entirely of their own free will. This isn’t a situation of people choosing to go out and help others. This is a situation of leveraging freedom and the ability to leave a prison compound on risking their lives. 

More than 2,000 volunteer fire fighters were inmates battling the flames in California. Among them were 58 youth offenders. We wouldn’t take minors as volunteer fire fighters on a normal day. Why would we be okay with it when those minors are seen as criminal?  

While its great to get the extra hands working to fight off these horrible fires in California, this is not the means to do so. Perhaps we should look at those who have wanted to be fire fighters already but were turned away instead.

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