This year, as California dried up in the record-breaking heat, the state was forced to cope with a devastating wildfire season. Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes as the flames crept in. Some watched their town get swallowed whole by the inferno. Just this month, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency when Los Angeles went up in flames—the largest fire in the city’s history.
While wildfires are a natural, healthy process for forest ecosystems, when they encroach on cities and towns that were built in high-risk fire zones, there’s little choice but to fight back the flames. Firefighters descend from helicopters or scramble up hillsides with chainsaws and water pumps in hand. But nearly a third of those charged with putting out the fires are not your traditional heroes—in fact, they’re prison inmates.
There are about 4,000 prisoners currently fighting wildfires in California, according to the New York Times. Out in the burning fray, they work shoulder-to-shoulder with professional firefighters.
Both male and female inmates make less than $2 an hour. The work is mainly done out of passion, and the drive to give back to the communities they’ve been isolated from or to gain valuable job skills for after their release.
At first glance, you might get the impression that wildfire fighting is a luxury compared to prison. But many give their lives to the mission. One 22-year-old inmate recently died on the job, with less than two months left in her prison sentence
Despite the risks, the fresh air and vast, mountainous landscapes can provide a much-need lifeline to the real world after days, months or years of staring at the prison’s grey concrete walls.
Many see the program as a rehabilitative process: inmates must work together under intense, high-pressure conditions, to protect communities from certain destruction.
Working long hours, in tight-knit groups and facing dangerous situations, many firefighters begin to feel like family.
While the work is more purposeful than anything offered on prison grounds, many inmates are still aggrieved by the low wages.
Other countries, and even organizations within the U.S., believe that stripping someone of their freedom is punishment enough. Many see the exploitation of inmates for cheap labor as a relic of slavery, legalized and repackaged for 21st-century sensibilities.
As David Fathi, director of the A.C.L.U. National Prison Project, says to the New York Times, ‘‘I think one important question to ask is, if these people are safe to be out and about and carrying axes and chainsaws, maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.’’
These inmate firefighters represent a massive tax windfall for California—approximately $1 billion a year. Other states like Nevada, Wyoming, and Arizona also use prison inmates to help fight wildfires.
Something is unsettling about the way some government officials talk about state inmate firefighting programs. Many politicians have used the program as an argument not to reduce prison populations, though we know that mass incarceration is immoral.
America locks people up at a rate higher than any other country on the planet
Many of these firefighters are in jail for non-violent, drug or alcohol-related crime and in many cases, homes and lives are saved because these inmates are willing to risk theirs.