Should Prison Inmates Be Fighting Forest Fires?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 21, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There are currently fourteen wildfires burning in California, covering a total of almost 250,000 acres. In the fourth year of a historic drought, keeping these fires contained has been a challenge for fire crews statewide.

So who's doing the firefighting? As it so happens, quite a few of California's prison inmates are helping battle the blazes.

Not Forced Firefighting

The first thing to understand about California's felon firefighters is that this is not forced labor. Although the Thirteenth Amendment allows forced penal labor "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted," all of the 4,000 inmates fighting fires in California were volunteers who were screened and trained through the state's Conservation Camps.

In order to be eligible for the camp program, inmates must be physically fit, have no history of violent crimes, and be minimum custody inmates. As Mother Jones noted, "the program is a win-win situation: Inmates learn useful skills and spend time outside the normal confines of prison, and the collaboration with Cal Fire saves the state roughly $80 million a year."

Fighting Fires With Felons

Felony inmates that qualify and participate in the conservation program get $2 a day and $2 an hour when working the fire line (compared to other prison jobs that pay $1 an hour). They also get two days off their sentence for every day worked. And perhaps most importantly, they get time outside the prison walls, learning a trade, and eating "better (and more) food since they're burning so many calories."

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection gets 4,000 able-bodied firefighters, which is about 30 percent of the total force now fighting the state's wildfires. When they're not on the front lines, inmates participate in conservation efforts like clearing brush to prevent future fires.

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