California Employs Thousands of Inmates to Fight Wildfires

With its drought at record levels, California has been experiencing a major increase in the number of wildfires. As fires continue to rage in California, the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation allows low-risk inmates to help in the fight.

Several states employ prison labor to fight wildfires, but California has the largest program of this type. Governor Brown recently lauded the prison inmates fighting the Rocky Fire in Northern California that has destroyed 14 homes so far. Nearly 1,200 inmates are helping this battle.

Cal Fire is authorized to operate 39 Conservation Camps that house nearly 4,300 inmates and wards. These inmates receive intense physical fitness training and then are trained in firefighting skills before they join the firefighting teams. A correctional officer and a fire captain are always with the crew supervising the inmates who either sleep on the line or go back to base camp.

Firefighting inmates operate on the edges of the fires. They build control lines, strengthen them, put out hot spots, and mop up the fire. For instance, they use chainsaws to remove any brush that could burn.

These inmates receive $1 a day in pay and receive credits towards early release. In fact, inmates that fight fires earn twice as many credits toward early release as those in other programs. These high-level credits are known as 2-for-1 credits.

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Inmate Nathan Navarez who is fighting the Rocky Fire was quoted by CBS San Francisco as saying how he has found skills and self-respect in the firefighting program. These skills may pay off after the inmates are released. For instance, Navarez is hoping for employment with the Forest Service or Cal Fire.