Prisoners Are Getting Paid $1.45 a Day to Fight the California Wildfires

As firefighters in California battle the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history, they are joined by unlikely allies against the blaze. About 200 prisoners in California’s Conservation Camp program are fighting the fires alongside civilian employees, earning just $1.45 a day for their work. Their pay as workers is a fraction of minimum wage. The hazard to their lives is real, as evidenced by a death toll that has climbed steadily.

The prisoners battling the fires in California deserve real wages. And their rights as workers lead us to larger issues of prison labor, fires or not.

I’m often asked what the ACLU thinks about this and other prison work programs. The answer isn’t black or white. Most prisoners want to work, and jobs for prisoners can be a very positive thing.  A job can provide an escape from the crushing monotony of prison life – a chance to do something productive, earn a little money, and maybe even learn some skills that are useful in and of themselves and useful when reentering society. And as we know, 97 percent of people in prison will return to their communities.

That said, given the vast power inequality between prisoners and their employers, there is also a persistent and real potential for exploitation and abuse. 

Prisoners are excluded from the legal protections enjoyed by all other workers. They’re not allowed to unionize. They’re not covered by minimum wage laws, and the paltry wages they do earn can be seized by the prison. If they’re injured or killed on the job, they’re not covered by workers’ compensation, and their ability to recover damages in court is severely limited. All of these factors combine to make prisoners a uniquely vulnerable workforce.

It’s true that no California prisoners are forced to fight fires; prisoners volunteer for the assignment. But prison is an inherently coercive environment; there’s very little that is truly voluntary. So it’s critically important to ensure that prisoners who choose to work are making a free and uncoerced choice, and a choice that’s fully informed about the risks and dangers of the work they’re agreeing to do.

And fighting wildfires is extraordinarily dangerous work. 

At least two prisoner firefighters died in work-related accidents in California last year alone. In 1990, an entire prisoner fire crew of six died on a single day in Arizona. Beyond these more immediate dangers, firefighters face an increased risk of respiratory disease, cancer, and other illnesses. 

Prison labor also raises additional concerns beyond prisoner health and safety. Employers will naturally be attracted by the prospect of a uniquely docile, powerless, and literally captive labor force. The prison labor force could also undercut workers who are not incarcerated. Without proper oversight, in a country with 2.3 million prisoners, there’s a danger that prison labor could displace the position of free workers and undermine workers’ rights writ large.

The state of California has come to rely on prison labor to such a degree that it has affected state policy.

In 2014 the California prison system was ordered by a federal court to grant early release credits to minimum security prisoners to comply with a population cap imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state’s lawyers argued against such early releases on the ground that they would “severely impact fire camp participation.” In other words, the state argued that people should be kept in prison not because they were dangerous, but so that they could continue doing work that would otherwise have to be done by public employees. 

Although the court rejected those arguments and then-Attorney General Kamala Harris later disavowed them, the incident shows how the temptation to exploit prison labor can distort our criminal justice system. We should use incarceration as a last resort to protect public safety — not to create or maintain a pool of cheap labor for the government. 

The best way to protect prisoner workers is to treat them as much as possible like non-incarcerated employees. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be paid a real wage, protected by occupational health and safety laws, and compensated for injuries on the job. The hundreds of prisoners risking their lives on the firelines deserve nothing less.

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Anonymous

They are prisoners they lost their rights when they commited their crime. They are not forced into helping out with wildland fire they choose to do it. If you cant do the time don’t commit the crime.

Anonymous

I am concerned that prisoners get their paltry wages taken away. How the heck does that happen?

Anonymous

It happens because some states have a victim relief program that awards a paltry sum to victims of crime.

Anonymous

I am disgusted.

Anonymous

They get paid $1.45 and have NO expenses. Pay them minimum wage but then deduct all of their living expenses, including prison fees, and I’m sure they will gladly accept the $1.45 without complaint.

Anonymous

When I was incarcerated I would have loved the opportunity to go to fire camp.its a priveledge.its also probably the safest place you can be if you are a g.p inmate.
dont forget they aren't paying for rent, bills, food,clothing,transportation,etc. After all my expenses are taken care of I don't have much more than they do when it's all said done.
yes, there are always things that can be improved in every system.but remember those guys in firecamp are doing alright.and if you don't believe me,go to prison,it might change your perspective.

Anonymous

Amen, brother. When I was locked up I would have gladly paid for the privilege to go outside the walls and fight fires.

Anonymous

I don't understand why they should be paid minimum wage. People who aren't incarcerated don't even always make it if they are waiters etc barely making it by. It sounds selfish to most but I don't get it. If you are there for things other than pot you don't deserve to be saving up all that money. Just offer that sort of payment to the large amount of non-violent offenders. Just makes sense. It's not OK to give them more money than people who don't break the law if they were violent. Things just need to be changed so that people who deserve it are the ones who get the money. End of story.

Anonymous

They volunteered for this. Volunteers don’t get paid. I know this because I am one. I receive reimbursement for mileage only on my car, which I must maintain, put gas in, and insure in order to drive it.

I feel your article is very biased and one-sided. They are getting free room and board on the tax payer’s dime. They also have healthcare while incarcerated.

The only thing I would even consider acceptable is for compensation for families if one dies fighting a fire. Yes, it’s great they want to help and learn new skills, but they still chose to “volunteer”. No one made them.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

All the articles here are "very biased and one-sided". That's why I feel no remorse for making crazy, inane and offensive comments.

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