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Two years ago, as fourteen wildfires engulfed almost 250,000 acres in California during a historic drought, we wondered whether prison inmates should really be making up 30 percent of the firefighting force in the Golden State. This week, after 41 fatalities and almost 150,000 scorched acres in Napa, Sonoma, and Yuba counties, the question isn't so much whether inmates should be fighting forest fires, but whether they should be paid more to do so.
The American Bar Association is reporting that almost 4,000 inmates in California are getting paid $1 an hour to clear and maintain fire containment lines. One bonus? For every day spent battling blazes, "incarcerated" fire fighters can shave two days off their prison sentence.
"When you hear that a fire has been 50 percent, or 100 percent, contained, that's inmate firefighters doing the job," Bill Sessa, spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told the Sacramento News & Review. Sessa explains that the inmates' primary function is to halt advancing wildfires by clearing brush to create six-foot-wide fire breaks.
As of Monday night, three of the deadly Northern California blazes were at least 50 percent contained: the Tubbs fire was 75 percent contained, the Atlas fire 70 percent contained, and the Nuns fire 53 percent contained. The work is all strictly voluntary, and only for minimum-security, non-violent felony convicts. Along with the dollar an hour for active work and reduced sentences, inmates receive $2 every day they spent in conservation camps across the state.
The convict cooperation isn't without controversy. Then-Attorney General Kamala Harris' office raised eyebrows in 2014 when, while the state was simultaneously battling wildfires and criminally overcrowded federal prisons, it said that releasing too many prisoners "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."
"It's appalling that the state would argue that people should be kept in prison not because they're dangerous, but so they can continue to provide cheap labor," David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, told the News & Review. "The purpose of incarceration is to protect public safety, not to provide a captive labor force for the government."
It doesn't look like California's inmate firefighting force (along with the wildfires that necessitate their assistance) are going anywhere soon. But whether compensation for convicts performing essential government functions is adequate remains open for debate.
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