Incarcerated People Are Fighting Wildfires

Incarcerated people make up 30% of California’s wildland fire crews, and around 200 of those firefighters are female. Their job is to establish a line, usually a few feet wide, by cutting through trees and shrubs and removing anything that could burn. For this grueling and risky labor, they earn $2.56 a day while in camp, and up to $2 an hour while fighting fires. The California Department of Corrections estimates that paying such minuscule wages for this vital work, rather than the standard hourly rate, has saved the state at least $1.2 billion over the past 13 years. For many women, the program offers relative dignity and purpose compared to the grim realities of incarceration. Besides receiving good food and exercise, they get to live in the forest of Malibu, where their families can visit them under pine trees rather than the fluorescent lights of a prison. Fire-threatened residents even hold up signs to thank them for their work. Because the forestry programs are popular among imprisoned people — talked up as a "prison Shangri-La with lobster, shrimp, and ocean breezes” — there's no opposition to them, despite the low pay. Unfortunately, those who may be thinking the experience will help them build a career in firefighting for when they return to society, it’s a major disappointment to learn that state laws prevent fire departments from hiring ex-felons and parolees.