Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

$2 a day and $1 an hour? Are inmate firefighters California’s slave labor?

Inmate firefighters build a containment line ahead of flames from the Butte Fire near Sheep Ranch in September 2015.
Inmate firefighters build a containment line ahead of flames from the Butte Fire near Sheep Ranch in September 2015. AP file

In May, firefighter Matthew Beck was killed while clearing brush in Del Norte County when a 120-foot tree fell on him. In July, firefighter Frank Anaya died while battling a grass fire in San Diego County after he fell on a chainsaw.

Two tragedies, with something most interesting in common: Both firefighters also happened to be state prison inmates. Beck, 26, was serving a six-year sentence for burglary. Anaya, 22, was in for three years for assaulting his spouse.

I totally get that it’s hard to have too much sympathy for people who are behind bars for good reasons. To some, caring about their safety may be the definition of bleeding-heart liberal. Even the ACLU of Northern California, which often defends prisoners’ rights, has no position on this particular issue.

One person who is being vocal is Gayle McLaughlin, the former Richmond mayor who is running for lieutenant governor in 2018. She says using prisoners as firefighters amounts to “slave labor” and calls it an example of a criminal justice system “gone deeply wrong.”

“I want inmates in California to learn new skills – but trading a cell for a wildfire and $1 a day, that’s just crazy,” McLaughlin wrote in an email pitch last week to potential supporters. “We have to pay everyone real wages and restore the civil rights of people who are serving a sentence.”

She’s trying to stand out from the pack and appeal to the Bernie Sanders crowd. She also has a point.

The average pay for inmate firefighters is $2 a day, and $1 an hour while fighting an active fire. They also earn credits off their sentences – two days for every day served in the fire camps. While state prison department officials say fire duty is an important part of rehabilitation and teaches firefighting skills and teamwork, they also say it isn’t meant to be a vocational training program. They don’t have any data showing that it actually helps ex-offenders get jobs on the outside.

What is clear is that inmate firefighters save the state some real money – an estimated $100 million a year (though taxpayers are also paying an average of $76,320 a year for each prisoner). Depending on the week, between 3,700 and 3,900 are housed in 44 fire camps run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, all but five in conjunction with Cal Fire. Inmates make up a big piece of the available manpower during wildfire season, reinforcing about 5,300 full-time firefighters and other Cal Fire personnel and nearly 1,800 seasonal firefighters.

And with climate change, the need for firefighters will likely only increase. As of Wednesday morning, there were nine active wildfires in the state, including seven in Northern California.

Before going on the fire line, inmates get the same entry-level training as Cal Fire’s seasonal firefighters, then receive wildfire training while in the camps, officials say. They say inmate crews are deployed and protected exactly the same as other firefighters. Beck and Anaya are only the fourth and fifth inmates to die in the program, which dates to the 1940s.

On the CDCR webpage devoted to the program, the press releases on their deaths are vastly outnumbered by stories about all the good deeds by inmate firefighters – donating bicycles to needy kids and saving a family in a car crash. In February, more than 230 inmates responded to the Oroville dam emergency, helping clear debris near the crumbling emergency spillway. Officials say many prisoners are happy to volunteer because being outside beats being locked up inside.

California has a well-deserved liberal reputation, but on criminal justice, the state can be rather conservative. It was one of the first states with a “three strikes” law. Twice since 2012, voters have upheld the death penalty.

So while the state is helping lead the way on prison and sentencing reform, there’s no crusade to do away with the inmate firefighter program. It’s not going to be the issue that gets McLaughlin elected.

Inmates will continue to toil on the fire lines and if a few get injured, or even killed every once in a while, most of us won’t lose much sleep over it.

But they should get paid a little more fairly.

Foon Rheee is associate editor, editorial writer and Viewpoints editor for The Sacramento Bee.