The Napa-Sonoma Valley fires that are currently blazing in California have caused much destruction and garnered the entire nation’s attention due to the magnitude of the disaster. Since the start of the first flames on Oct. 8, forty people have died and 220,000 acres of land and 5,700 structures have been destroyed, making it the worst wildfire in California history.
Heroic first responders and firefighters have been celebrated with great gratitude, and for good reason too. However, what many may not know is that about 1700 of those firefighters are actually inmates, risking their lives for labor that only pays a dollar an hour.
A dollar an hour.
Inmate labor in California is not a new concept, and inmate firefighters have been around since 1946, in an effort to save money in a country still recovering from the Great Depression. It worked so well, in fact, that California decided to keep inmates on the fire lines and rename it as the Conservation Camp Program.
Today, thirteen percent of California’s firefighters are inmates. Men and women alike are set at labor-intensive tasks such as clearing debris and trees to stop fires from spreading (called containment), forcing them to be at the front line of dangerous fires, or ahead of the fire itself. In the current Napa fire, crews of inmates are working 24 or 72 hours straight – literally around the clock to prevent fires from expanding and save lives.
Incarcerated firefighters are worked to the bone, sometimes to death, and still only receive a dollar an hour for the exact same labor that a regular firefighter earns a minimum of 17 dollars an hour for. As if that is not enough, incarcerated firefighters are also shut down for jobs at fire departments when they are released, even though they are already trained in the field.
Imagine this. You are working tirelessly and in conditions where your life is at risk daily, for a wage that is ridiculously and outrageously low. Your job, which is extremely crucial and necessary, is never mentioned or recognized by anyone. And when you attempt to utilize your training and experience after your release, you are immediately turned away.
This system needs to change. If California wants to have inmates fighting fires the way they are now, wages have to increase. There is no justification for paying them hourly wages that are lower than the international poverty line (which is $1.90 an hour).
Inmate firefighters have proven how essential they are time and time again, and it is our turn to pay the favor back.
Picture Credit: Pixabay