In the line of fire: Prison inmates are being paid JUST $1 per hour to fight wildfires in California

There are roughly 14,000 firefighters on duty battling fires across the region. Among them are more than 2,000 inmates including 58 individuals under the age of 18.

                            In the line of fire: Prison inmates are being paid JUST $1 per hour to fight wildfires in California
(Source:Getty Images)

Who would have thought that inmates in California would be helping fight the flames in the state's worst wildfire season ever? You read that right. Over 2,000 volunteer prisoners, including 58 individuals under the age of 18, are currently serving as firefighters in California, according to a tweet by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

“Inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire’s spread,” the tweet read.

However, the announcement spurred a debate online over the controversial practice instead of garnering praise for the important role played by these inmates during the wildfire season.

It is being said that the crux of the discussion is the difference in wages offered to these volunteers. 

Former Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who is currently running for the post of lieutenant governor, has been the biggest critic of the inmate program wages. In her campaign website, she said, "No matter how you may want to dress it up, if you have people working for nothing or almost nothing, you’ve got slave labor, and it is not acceptable.  

Cal Fire Firefighters reportedly make at least US$10.50 per hour, according to a report by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

On the other hand, these prisoners just make $2 per day, excluding $1 per hour of work.

But Bill Sessa, a spokesman for CDCR, described the inmates’ salaries as a “lavish pay by prison standards” in an interview with CNN last year.

Sessa explained in a statement to KQED News last year that California was saving up to US$100 million a year in firefighting costs by sending these inmates to put out the flames.

Despite technically being volunteers, these firefighters are specially trained and selected for the job.

“We also look for certain attributes that we know are critical for them to be able to work on a fire crew: whether they are willing to join in and work as a team, obey rules, be disciplined and be responsible,” he said.

According to him, some inmates, while fighting some of the most daunting fires in the state, worked 72 hours straight last year.

Sessa also asserted that although it might seem like they are being paid less as compared to real firefighters, the inmates are grateful for the opportunity to earn.

“The value of this program is it teaches people life skills that most of us take for granted but many of them came to prison without,” he told CNN. “They learn discipline and to show up on time, and some leadership.”

However, these prisoners will never be able to become actual firefighters once they leave prison “despite their heroics” and job experience, owing to California occupational licensing laws that prevent known felons from earning EMT certifications, according to an article by the Washington Examiner.

“This isn’t just an injustice — it’s a waste of acquired skills and state resources. Inmates have to volunteer for the job in the first place, then go through significant training while incarcerated,” the article reads.