Earlier this year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation tweeted something that drew attention: Their inmates were “volunteering” to fight the state’s wildfires, which were wreaking havoc over the state of California.

Many aren’t aware that prison firefighting programs have been around for more than a century. California’s inmate firefighting program, Conservation (Fire) Camp Program, is operated by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) with the involvement of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and Los Angeles County Fire Department. CDCR fire camps started as “temporary camps,” designed to bring in inmates to expand forces by increasing the number of firefighters. These camps became permanent fixtures after the CDCR opened Rainbow in Fallbrook, California, shortly after World War II. Though California’s initial motivation for this initiative was to save costs, by the 1960s, these programs supposedly placed more emphasis on the rehabilitation of inmates, “changing offenders’ life trajectories.”

According to CDCR, eligibility for these fire camps is currently contingent upon an inmate’s “‘minimum custody’ status, or the lowest classification for inmates based on their sustained good behavior in prison, [and] their conforming to rules within the prison and participation in rehabilitative programming.” The CDCR gives each inmate them a set number of points based on their age, the crime they committed, and the length of their sentence, in order to determine whether they are a qualify as a low-level offender. Any low-level offenders that haven’t committed arson, committed any sexual offenses or attempted to escape prison are eligible for the firefighting program.

Compared to prison, the fire camp is generally seen as a more desirable form of incarceration. The quality of food is better. It’s an open space with more connection to the outdoors and increased amount of recreational options.Though CDCR prison officials have said that low-level offenders volunteer for the program, prisoner advocates and organizers are calling it coercion.

“If your only options are between fighting fires and sitting in a cell, it’s not a leveled playing field when it comes to choices,” Amani Sawari, spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), said. This organization was one of the main advocacy groups that brought awareness to the prison strike earlier this year. “They make that choice, that sacrifice [to be firefighters] because there’s no better choice, there is no choice. It’s complete coercion and the prison system takes full advantage of that,” Amani said.

Brooke Terpstra, spokesperson for Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee (IWOC), another organizer of this year’s prison strike, agrees. “There is no consent within prisons. They control your body and your movements,” Terpstra said. “The prison system is backed up by violence and torture. [To offer] a hard job for $1 an hour and say that it’s a choice is absurd.”

Once inmates enter the fire camp, they are separated into different crews and participate in a two-week training program similar to what seasonal civilian firefighters are given. After training, they climb steep hills while using chainsaws and axes known as Pulaskis to cut down forestry under the supervision by CAL FIRE captains. This is intended to prevent the spread of the blazing wildfires. Some low-level offenders enter the firefighting program and work jobs within the fire camps, such as cooking food for the fire camp, gardening and landscaping the camp’s fresh produce plants, and cleaning the camp facilities. This enables them to utilize some of the skills and talents they used in their own careers prior to incarceration. When they are all on the grounds of the fire camp, they are supervised by prison guards.

If there is an active fire, they are subjected to 24-hour shifts, working overtime in dangerous conditions, such as extreme heat and possibility of death.Their safety, health and work conditions aren’t regarded as efficiently as licensed firefighters, since there is currently no system of accountability in place to ensure their safety. Last year, two imprisoned firefighters lost
their lives on duty in Northern California. In the 40 years that the CDCR CAL FIRE program has been around, there have been five casualties among imprisoned firefighters.

*Sal, a formerly incarcerated firefighter who entered the fire camp in May 2009, spoke with Blavity Politics on the dangers those who are imprisoned in the fire camps face.

“Besides the dangers to pulmonary health created by fire smoke and contact with other toxic chemicals, the environmental dangers created because of fires also proved to be formidable threats,” Sal explained. “Once while containing a relatively small fire that had spread to about an acre on a steep hillside off Highway 1 in Mendocino County, I was almost struck by a large boulder that came tumbling down the hill, as a result of the soil erosion caused by the heat of the fire.”

Although incarcerated firefighters have the training and experience, they are not given jobs within California firefighter departments upon their release. To become an official firefighter in California, an emergency medical technician (EMT) license is required. Due to legislation that restricts giving licenses to those with prior criminal convictions, they are barred from receiving them.

With limited opportunities for employment due to prior convictions, the chance for recidivism is higher. According to the 2012 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report, between 2008 and 2009, around 61 percent of those released from prison in California went right back in within three years, after participating in a public safety realignment initiative. CDCR did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

This has those advocating on behalf of the incarcerated questioning how fire camp programs actually benefits those who are imprisoned. Many wonder if it’s just another example of inmates being exploited. Kevin Kempf, the head of Association of State Correctional Administrators, the folks who train correctional directors to run prisons, says those in prison have a lot to gain from entering these prison firefighting programs. In addition to earned money toward their court fees, commissary funds as well as freedom outside of the prison, Kempf emphasized that a lot of the inmates want to give back to their communities.

“True public safety comes with opportunities to change. Those opportunities happen when they are given more responsibilities, [such as fighting wildfires],” Kempf said. He also listed off many other benefits such as paying off victim restitution: A better transition into society, developing an additional skill set and being a part of a crew.

Yet, the amount of participation from inmates for the firefighting programs has dropped more than 13 percent since 2008. This drop has been attributed to California court’s mandate to reduce prison population due to overcrowding. The state’s response to the mandate was a new prison policy known as realignment, in which low-level inmates were transferred to county jails to reduce overcrowding in California prisons. However, it became a problem for the inmate firefighting program, as they aren’t allowed to offer the firefighting program in county jails. This means less people to use for cheap labor.

By acknowledging that overcrowding is an issue, prisons are recognizing that mass incarceration is a problem. They know they have too many people in prisons that they can’t house in their prison facilities and aren’t eligible for the prison firefighting programs. Instead of reducing sentences or “reforming” prisons, the prison system has resorted to shifting low-level offenders from prison to county jails, still dictating and restricting their movement. If low-level offenders are trusted with the safety of the public and are being moved to county jails with less security measures, then the prison system is making it clear that these low-level offenders’ crimes don’t characterize them as anything necessary for imprisonment. It questions whether the main reason for their imprisonment in prisons is not for their crime, but for the necessity of people to do the work that they don’t have a choice but to do when they enter the prison system.

When a job it isn’t really “volunteering,” doesn’t offer fair wages, consists working in dangerous conditions, and still doesn’t support their ability to get a job following release them once they are released, it cannot be refuted as slave labor. Unfortunately, since low-level offenders see their time in prison as just visiting compared to long-term offenders, they aren’t likely to collectively organize to fight this issue. Unless folks at organizations such as IWOC and JLS or other formerly incarcerated folks continue to demand change, the prison system will keep providing slave labor for dangerous fires that are increasingly becoming a climate change problem for California.

*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.

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