Inmate firefighters are battling California’s deadliest fires

These firefighters work 24-hour shifts and are paid $2 per day with an additional $1 for active fires.

Firefighters are currently battling record-breaking wildfires across Northern and Southern California. Assisting them in the field are prison inmates, a group who has been helping the state fight fires since World War II.

The inmates are part of a volunteer natural disaster response program run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

According to CDCR public information officer Alexandra Powell, there are 1,418 inmates assisting with wildfire containment as of Nov. 13. Twenty-eight of these inmates are young adults, between the ages of 18 and 25, working out of the Pine Grove Conservation Camp, located east of Sacramento.

Inmate firefighters typically work 24-hour shifts and earn an average of $2 per day, Powell said. When deployed to an active fire, they can earn an additional $1 per hour. One CDCR official is quoted as saying this program saves the state between $90 and $100 million a year.

"An inmate must volunteer for the fire camp program; no one is involuntarily assigned," Powell said in an email. This is an opportunity earned through "sustained good behavior in prison."

Volunteers are rewarded with "good time credit," or sentence reduction, for their efforts. The credit rate for inmates with non-violent convictions is a two-day sentence reduction for every day of work.

"The environment is coercive," said Katherine Katcher, founder and executive director of California-based non-profit Root & Rebound, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter society. "People welcome any opportunity to get out earlier, to get back to their families, back to their lives and make money."

Once their sentence is over, however, these volunteer firefighters enter a workforce where their ex-offender history disqualifies them from many jobs.

"In the specific case of people coming out of prison and trying to get a job as a firefighter, California actually has some of the most prohibitive laws in the nation to that respect," said Stephen Slivinski, senior research analyst at the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty.

California law effectively tells formerly incarcerated individuals "even though taxpayer money and the system has worked to train you to become a good firefighter, we will not allow you to become one because you have a criminal record," Slivinski said.

Not only do prohibitive policies limit potential employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, but according to Slivinski's research, such policies may also increase California's already high recidivism rates.

When states enact strict provisions that "stack the deck" against ex-offenders, "you see an increase in the probability that these individuals will go back into the prison system and reoffend because they're kept out of the labor market," Slivinski said.

Within the last two years, states including Michigan and Illinois have begun scaling back these restrictive labor laws.

Katcher's non-profit, in partnership with 50 additional criminal justice reform organizations, spent the past year pushing for the passage of three bills in the California legislature. A weakened version of the bill prohibiting the Department of Consumer Affairs from denying or revoking licenses unless a criminal conviction is directly related to the job passed in September.

The third bill, specifically targeting the prohibitive EMT licensing system necessary to become a firefighter, was voted down in favor of collecting more data on the number of ex-offenders denied certification every year.

Despite the outcome, Katcher said advocates will continue fighting. "This isn't a free pass, no one is advocating for a free-for-all," she said. "We're saying there should be a fair and accurate consideration of someone's record and its relation to their ability to do the job."

Correction: The organization was originally called "Root & Reboots." It is Root & Rebound.