4,000 Prison Inmates Fighting California Wildfires For $2 Per Day

Prisoners often work 24-hour shifts battling raging wildfires. For each day they engage in this dangerous work, they receive two days off their sentences.

By Kit O’Connell @KitOConnell | August 18, 2015

Inmate firefighters from the Fenner Canyon Conservation Camp
Inmate firefighters from the Fenner Canyon Conservation Camp await orders to move out, as the Sawtooth Complex fire moves through Morongo Valley, California, July 13, 2006.

SACRAMENTO, California — With wildfires blazing throughout the parched Western United States, the state of California has found a novel, though ethically questionable, way to save money on the state’s safety budget: Send state prisoners to work on the frontlines fighting forest fires for $2 per day.

“More than 100 wildfires are burning across the West — destroying dozens of homes, forcing hundreds of people to flee and stretching firefighting budgets to the breaking point,” wrote Tim Stelloh for NBC News on Monday. For California, he reported, that means some 14,000 firefighters combating 19 forest fires, including the “Jerusalem fire,” which covered over 25,000 acres before being mostly contained as of Saturday. “[T]he blaze — along with six others — was still sending smoke south across the San Francisco Bay Area,” Stelloh wrote.

About 4,000 low-level felons from California’s state prisons are fighting the fires, operating out of so-called “conservation camps,” according to Julia Lurie, writing on Friday for Mother Jones. “Between 30 and 40 percent of California’s forest firefighters are state prison inmates,” she reported. Inmates who committed certain offenses, like sex crimes or arson, are blocked from entering the firefighting program. Prisoners work in 24-hour shifts during forest fire season, followed by 24 hours off. Prisoners earn $2 a day just by being in the program, plus an additional $2 an hour when they are actively fighting fires.

Additionally, Lurie wrote, “[F]or each day they work in the program, the inmates receive a two-day reduction from their sentences.”

The above-average wages and sentence reductions, however, are hard-won, as the work is hazardous. According to the government fire tracking Incident Information System, ten firefighters were evacuated with minor injuries from the wildfire called the “Cabin Fire.” One firefighter, David Ruhl, died late last month fighting Northern California’s “Frog Fire,” CNN reported on Aug. 1. A spokesman for the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told Lurie that there have been “only ‘two or three’ serious injuries and no deaths among inmate firefighters over the past two years.”

Some inmates find the experience a positive one — they eat better, are not racially segregated like in the jails, and live in cabins surrounding by chain-link fences rather than prison walls. Sarah Bufkin, writing for Bustle, quoted one inmate’s praise for the program:

“‘The lieutenant comes out and he goes, “Look, we’ll treat you like men first, firefighters second and prisoners if we have to,”’ [Cory] Sills said. ‘That right there, that stuck in my head for two years now because now I have a chance to be treated like a man.’”

However, the risk of injury or death is leading some to question the program, given the paltry options available to inmates:

“Most inmates, [Buzzfeed’s Amanda] Lewis notes, wouldn’t do this work unless they had to, preferring to stay well away from the raging fires. But they take both the training and the work in stride because the only other option is a return to prison.”

And, according to Julia Lurie, prison reform advocates are worried that the firefighting program is actually preventing more substantial improvements to prison conditions that might cut down on the availability of cheap prison labor:

“The concern was magnified last fall, when lawyers for state Attorney General Kamala Harris argued that extending an early prison-release program to ‘all minimum custody inmates 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.’”


“Convict lease”

“Convict leasing was a system of penal labor practiced in the Southern United States, beginning with the emancipation of slaves at the end of the American Civil War in 1865, peaking around 1880, and officially ending in the last state, Alabama, in 1928. It persisted in various forms until World War II.

Convict leasing provided prisoner labor to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations such as the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. The lessee was responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners. While northern states sometimes contracted for prison labor, the historian Alex Lichtenstein notes that,

“only in the South did the state entirely give up its control to the contractor; and only in the South did the physical “penitentiary” become virtually synonymous with the various private enterprises in which convicts labored.”[1]

Corruption, lack of accountability, and racial violence resulted in “one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.” [2] African Americans, due to “vigorous and selective enforcement of laws and discriminatory sentencing”, made up the vast majority—but not all—of the convicts leased.[3]

The writer Douglas A. Blackmon described the system:

“It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.[4]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convict_lease


“Think of American freedmen who, after centuries of being denied literacy in slavery, made schooling a centerpiece in the exercise of their hard-won freedom. As one former slave put it in the 1860s, “What would the best soil produce without cultivation? We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that and we are made for time and eternity.” Think of the thousands of school children who marched to Cape Town’s City Hall this September, politely demanding libraries, classrooms, and, as one ninth-grader said, “more information and knowledge.”

 Think of W.E.B. Du Bois, Harvard’s first black Ph.D., who proclaimed, “Of all the civil rights that the world has struggled for, for five thousand years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.”

Du Bois had to struggle for his own education and in 1891 finally persuaded a scholarship committee that there was a black person worthy of sending to graduate school.“I find men willing to help me use my hands …” he wrote, “but I never found a man willing to help me get a Harvard Ph.D.” Finally, that changed.” – Drew Gilpin Faust



~~ Birth of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline for African Americans~~

The New Orleans Times a Talk with Gen. Forrest

published 12-08-1875


  We met at Nashville our old friend Gen N. B. Forrest, and had a long interview with him.

The General has been farming with convict labor and is much pleased with his experiment.

He has a plantation some fifteen miles from Memphis; upon this he worked this year thirty-six men and four women, taken from the Nashville Penitentiary, and he has averaged fifteen acres to the hand in cotton and corn, and will make eight bales of cotton to the hand, off of about 480 acres in cotton.

He made some two or three months ago a contract with the County  of Shelby county, which includes Memphis to take all persons sentenced to the workhouse; this, in the last few weeks, increased his force to more than a hundred hands……

The last Legislature of Tennessee passed a very wise and salutary law. Vagrancy was made an indictable crime and the grade of petty larceny was raised from ten dollars to thirty.  It had been found that the rigid enforcement of the law in relation to larceny was rapidly filling up the penitentiary with negroes; the counties were terribly taxed for the costs of arrests, commitments, jail keeping and jury fees, while the State was burdened with the charge for fees of sheriffs and guards, while conducting the convicts to the penitentiary, as well as the costs of transportation from all the counties to the penitentiary at Nashville. Petty larceny was therefore made to include all property up to the value of thirty dollars, and was made punishable with imprisonment not to exceed three years in the county workhouse……..

Among the last lots of convicts are some twenty boy vagrants called mackerels, from 12 to 17 years old……


“The American government has been critical of China’s forced-labor policies, but the United States has a burgeoning prison labor pool of its own.

Russia Today filed a report on Sunday that said hundreds of companies nationwide now benefit from the low, and sometimes no-wage labor of America’s prisoners.

Prison labor is being harvested on a massive scale, according to professors Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman.”