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How and Why Were Prison Inmates Used as Fire-fighters?

Let’s take a look at California’s history as thousands of minimum security inmates are being used as fire-fighters in one of the most devastating fire seasons in California’s history.

The history dates back to WWII when the Division of Forestry (now known as CalFire) had a hard time finding able -bodied men. Necessity creates change and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation developed 41 ‘interim camps’ to enable the forestry division to have access to men who could fight fires. Those interim camps were the foundation for the 43 conservation camps for adult minimum security inmates. Three of those camps house female fire-fighters. One of those female fire-fighters, Shawna Lynn Jones died while working on a fire with Malibu 13-3 in February 2016.

Some people feel that the inmates are used as indentured servants as they are working in hard, dangerous conditions for a dollar an hour. Some feel that it gives an inmate the ability to give something back to society and a skill they may use in the future. Some people like the director of the A.C.L.U., David Fathi ask questions like , “if these people are safe to be out and about and carrying axes and chain saws, maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.”

The inmates are volunteers, but is it truly voluntary if a minimum security inmate is given the choice to be in a camp and be a fire-fighter (time off one’s sentence, more freedom, ability to earn more money ), or stay on a prison yard. In 2014 when the courts in California were addressing the issue of overcrowding in the prisons, the attorney general’s office argued against reducing the number of inmates. They claimed it, “would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and drought.”

As a prison physician in Nevada I took care of inmates who were fire-fighters and saw how hard they worked and the injuries they sustained. Many took pride in what they did and felt gratified helping people on the outside. Others felt they were being used and were afraid of sustaining a disabling injury on the job. They knew their disability payment, even if they could get one, would be based on their salary (a dollar an hour or less). Many inmates who are only manual laborers know that if they are physically disabled from their work in prison they would not be able to survive on the streets legally when they were released.

If inmates have access to work in prison that can give them skills, education, certifications, income, savings, pride, something to do that keeps them from getting bored and into trouble I’m all for it. If it is a win-win program where the inmate and state both benefit it makes sense, but one has to be aware and make sure abuses don’t occur because of the power deferential between the two groups.

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