A captive brigade: California resisted releasing eligible prisoners to keep them fighting wildfires

Prison labor picks up slack as climate change pushes fire season into a year-round affair

Inmates trudge back from the fire line of the Mill Fire, which burned more than 1,600 acres in Tehama County during the summer of 2012.

Inmates trudge back from the fire line of the Mill Fire, which burned more than 1,600 acres in Tehama County during the summer of 2012.


This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the October 12, 2017, issue.

In 2014, as wildfires ravaged drought-parched California, the federal court system was discussing reducing the state’s inmate population of roughly 115,000 men and women. Because inmates provide a critical source of labor as firefighters, state leaders balked.

Lawyers in the office of then-Attorney General Kamala Harris said that releasing too many prisoners “at this time would severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

Harris, now a U.S. senator representing California, told Buzzfeed back in 2014 that she was “shocked” when she read about her attorney’s argument in the media.

Three years later, this state’s parched scrubland and forests are again burning on the tail end of a record hot summer and, as they have for decades, about 4,000 convicted criminals are facing the flames.

As deadly, late-season wildfires whip through Northern California’s wine country this week, the state finds itself straddling a dangerous line between delivering legitimate prison sentences and managing inmates as a source of cheap labor.

“When you hear that a fire has been 50 percent, or 100 percent, contained, that’s inmate firefighters doing the job,” said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The inmates, who roughly equal the state’s civilian firefighting forces, don’t fly helicopters, drive bulldozers or handle hoses. What they primarily do, Sessa explains, is clear brush to create 6-foot-wide strips of bare earth called fire breaks, meant to halt advancing wildfires.

For each day in the program, Sessa says, an inmate has two days knocked off his or her sentence.

The inmates also get paid for their work, though not much. They receive $2 per day for their time spent in any of the state’s 43 inmate firefighter camps, and an extra dollar per hour while on a fire line.

“It’s very cost-saving for the state,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

Some activists have decried the program as an abuse of power over a vulnerable sector of the population.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, has warned that employing prison inmates, in general, opens the door to potential abuse of the incarcerated population. To him, the 2014 statement from the attorney general’s office highlights the risks associated with prison labor.

“It’s appalling that the state would argue that people should be kept in prison not because they’re dangerous, but so they can continue to provide cheap labor,” Fathi said. “The purpose of incarceration is to protect public safety, not to provide a captive labor force for the government.”

Though dangerous—three inmate firefighters have died on the job in the past two years, and five in eight decades—Sessa says many inmates consider the camps preferable to the steel and cement of a prison cell.

“The environment is a lot more appealing than one in a jail yard behind an electrified fence,” added Sessa, who says he disagrees with the attorney general’s statement from three years ago. “Every inmate serving in the firefighting camps raised their hand and said they want to be there.”

Digging fire breaks is preceded by several weeks of training. Some inmates wind up serving several years as firefighters—gigs usually terminated by their release from prison. McLean, at Cal Fire, feels the program offers a service to inmates hoping to improve their lives. “Hopefully, we’re helping them,” he said.

It definitely helps the state.

California saves millions in would-be wages by deploying the inmates. Once freed from prison, McLean says, his agency screens job applicants in an effort to avoid those with criminal backgrounds. That means years of service on firelines can essentially mean nothing once a person’s prison sentence ends.

Gayle McLaughlin, former mayor of Richmond, recently reached out to media outlets to argue that the state is taking advantage of one of California’s most vulnerable populations.

“They’re volunteering to work, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be getting a fair wage,” said McLaughlin, who is running for lieutenant governor in 2018. “This is abuse of incarcerated individuals. A dollar an hour to stand at the frontlines of a wildfire is slave labor.”

Sessa said such comments originate from people “who know nothing about this program,” which was initiated in the 1930s. He points out that inmates have no living expenses to cover. “The state’s taxpayers already pay $76,000 per year per inmate to support these people,” he said.

Fathi, at the ACLU, acknowledges that employment behind bars can offer a variety of benefits for prisoners.

“But because of the vast power imbalance between prisoners and their employers, we need to be sensitive to the risk of exploitation and abuse,” he said. “Prisoners can’t unionize, and they’re not covered by workers’ compensation, occupational health or safety laws, or any of the other programs that protect workers in the outside world. If they’re injured or killed on the job, the chance of compensation for them or their families is extremely remote.”