As wildfires spread across California, some 9,400 firefighters are working around the clock to control the blaze. Yet one segment of these firefighters are only getting paid $2 a day for their work.
Around 1,500 incarcerated firefighters are fighting the wildfires as part of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) ‘volunteer’ firefighting program, called the Conservation Camp Program.
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As inmates, they earn a meager $2 a day — $3 if they fight active fires that put them on 24-hour shifts. For comparison, California’s civilian firefighters make an average of $73,860 per year plus benefits while working the exact same shifts, fighting the exact same fires.
As TIME reports, incarcerated firefighters are also at an increased risk of injury:
More than 1,000 inmate firefighters required hospital care between June 2013 and August 2018, according to data obtained by TIME through FOIA requests. They are more than four times as likely, per capita, to incur object-induced injuries, such as cuts, bruises, dislocations and fractures, compared with professional firefighters working on the same fires. Inmates were also more than eight times as likely to be injured after inhaling smoke and particulates compared with other firefighters.
Three inmate firefighters have died as a result of injuries sustained in the Conservation Camp Program in the last two years. Between February 2016 and July 2017, a boulder crushed one inmate, a 120-foot tall tree crushed another and a third sustained a severe cut to his femoral artery.
That leaves inmates deciding whether to participate in the volunteer program with a tough calculation: will they benefit from doing something good that could help them get a job when they’ve paid their debt to society? Or will they end up with injuries that make it even harder to get back on their feet upon completing their sentence?
California’s conservation fire camp program for inmates was founded initially as a way to provide support for firefighters during World War II. The idea is that it would teach inmates skills they can use post-incarceration.
“Our young men tend to have limited real-world job experience, so a benefit that they get here is learning the job skills that are necessary to work for an employer in the real world when they are released,” explained Jim Liptrap, the acting superintendent of CDCR’s Pine Grove conservation fire camp.
However, former inmates say getting hired as a firefighter isn’t always a reality. Much of this has to do with a rule that individuals convicted of felonies cannot obtain EMT licenses until they have been out of prison for 10 years. EMT licenses are required by most of California’s 900 fire departments.
“It’s interesting that I’m able to do everything alongside the paid firefighters right now, from treating patients on the scene and also putting out fires and extricating patients from vehicles,” said former inmate Ramon Leija.
“But when it comes to applying, I’m not offered the positions.”
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