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Felons, Flames, and the New Debate Over Prison Labor

California's worrisome dependence on inmate firefighters needed a good challenge—and accidentally got one.

Image by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region via Wikimedia Commons

On Monday the AP released a report revealing that California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was considering a plan to allow violent offenders incarcerated in state prisons to fight the state’s rampant wildfires. The proposal merely sought to expand an existing (and largely accepted) inmate firefighter program, and it was far from a done deal—if the DCR signed off on it, the plan would have still required approval from the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Yet the mere notion of violent offenders walking around outside prisons, maybe in small communities, freaked citizens right out of their skins. After just one day of mass outrage, the plan died; state officials won’t confirm that this sudden failure of the long-debated program resulted from the backdraft from the AP’s report. But considering the level of outrage, it’s hard to imagine the proposed program’s swift subsequent demise is unrelated.

It’s surprisingly hard to figure out how to feel about the plan’s death. The way the expansion was framed, it probably wouldn’t have increased the danger the program posed to citizens. In that light, the outrage that killed it feels like paranoia fueled by stereotypes of uncontrollably destructive inmates. That mindset betrays a widespread lack of faith in the ideology of rehabilitation and robs model prisoners of a decent opportunity to improve their situations. Yet the expansion was likely proposed because California has grown too dependent on cheap inmate labor to the point that they’ll pursue questionable policies to keep the stream of prisoner firefighters going. Robbing the state of new incarcerated worker outlets could push it to reconsider its relationship to prison labor, a relationship that gives California incentives to oppose expanded parole and reduced sentencing initiatives that could lower prison populations. On balance, killing the plan may have done more long-term good for prison populations, although it did so for all the wrong reasons and with a stigmatizing gut punch to some of the state’s most hardworking convicts.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming all have active inmate firefighter programs—California’s program was created in 1946 to respond to labor shortages, but endured thereafter with little hue and cry. Traditionally, the program is only open to minimum-security state prisoners without a history of violent crimes who demonstrate good behavior and pass a four-week firefighter-training program, as well as basic character and mental reviews. In exchange for their services, prisoners receive two days off their sentences for every day they work (versus one day off for one day of good behavior in prison). They live in tent camps (with guards but sometimes without walls) that have less cramped living conditions, better food, and nicer recreational facilities than a prison. And the prisoner-firefighters make between $1.45 and $3.90 a day when not at a fire site and $1 to just over $2 per hour when fighting a fire (which sounds like a criminally low sum, but it’s relatively generous by prison standards). The humanizing adulation of citizens in towns near wildfire sites, along with the engaging work and freedom of movement are a draw as well, and these programs can (anecdotally) reduce levels of prisoner-on-prisoner violence to below in-prison levels. It may even incentivize good behavior inside prisons among those gunning for the gig.

Even with minimum-security inmates, these programs have never been free of violence or incidents. An AP study of ten years of data from California revealed hundreds of assault and battery, indecent exposure, and weapons cases among those actively participating in the program. And every year just under a dozen inmates escape from these camps—about half of all the escapees in the state. Yet the study shows that these violent incidents tend to be directed inwards, amongst prisoners, and usually results inmates getting booted back to jail. And most escapees are quickly caught. You also can’t really compare their escape rate to a prison’s given that their camps are so unsecured; the wider convict population in the same circumstances would likely have a much higher flight rate. Firefighters have accepted the risks of working around criminals (thanks at times to the initial incentive of a bonus) and towns have witnessed their good works, leading many to call the program a resounding win-win rehabilitative success.

An inmate firefighting crew in Oregon. Image by the Oregon Department of Forestry via Flickr

Bringing in violent offenders almost certainly wouldn’t have changed that equation in the least. To start with, studies suggest that violent criminals are no more likely to act violently inside a prison than non-violent criminals. A criminal’s initial offense doesn’t always reflect his or her character. But beyond that, the DCR’s plan would only have expanded the program to violent offenders who’d shown enough prolonged good behavior to be classified as minimum-security prisoners—never to arsonists, gang affiliates, kidnappers, life-sentence-serving murderers, or sex offenders. The new plan expanded the program’s pool of applicants, but did not affect the character criteria for selection or risk posed by selectees, meaning that opposition to it was more a kneejerk reaction to the term “violent offender” than a sober assessment of actual realities. That kind of thinking is a rejection of the philosophical basis of our prison system, which holds that people can reform and rejoin society—a premise this opposition implicitly denied.

But the expansion probably wasn’t proposed in the spirit of reform and goodwill. Instead it’s a reflection of just how dependent California is on inmate firefighters. At the moment, 3,800 of CalFire’s 10,000 firefighters are inmates. Even with the presence of federal and interstate aid, inmates have at times composed up to 20 percent of the firefighter forces sent to subdue the state’s recent wildfires. These 196 inmate crews, which put in about 3 million hours collectively a year, likely save the state $80 to $100 million a year (some say more). They’ve been instrumental in responses to over 6,783 fires this year alone.

But a few years back, the inmate force stood at about 4,400, hundreds more than the current number; the program has actually been shrinking. Thanks to a series of sentencing reforms and rulings against overcrowding in prisons, state inmate populations have been reduced—especially amongst non-violent offenders. That means the population of eligible inmate firefighters has gone down just as forest fires have hit a crisis point. Of the state’s 20 largest fires since recordkeeping began in 1932, half have occurred since 2002, and the total number of wildfires seems to be rising annually since the state’s chronic drought began. Officials claim they still have enough firefighters to take care of the job. But as still-overcrowded prisons (hopefully) continue to depopulate and sentencing laws continue to evolve, that may change.

Already, the state is trying to bolster inmate firefighter numbers by negotiating to poach convicts from county jails (where many low-risk offenders have been transferred over the past few years). And it seems as if scrutiny of existing candidate pools has decreased as well. An investigation by the Redding Record-Searchlight in 2011, for instance, found that 20 percent of all the DCR’s supposedly screened non-violent inmates had actually committed violent crimes, including manslaughter. (It’s hard to ignore the irony in the opposition to the recent expansion plan, in light of this pre-existing knowledge that the program already de facto included violent offenders.)

Image by Jeff Turner via Wikimedia Commons

Yet what’s really telling and worrying is that last year, state officials argued against the expansion of parole and “two day sentence reduction for one day of work” programs on the grounds that they’d undercut the viability and appeal of the inmate firefighter program. That is to say, the state is dependent enough on inmate firefighters that it may be opposing safe, legitimate plans to get rehabilitated criminals back into society in order to retain a supply of cheap human labor.

Prison labor has been controversial for a long time. Yet while profiting from the sub-minimum wage labor of inmates seems wrong to some, it is legal. And although inmate firefighters’ work can be dangerous—they clear brush ahead of fires to create holding gaps, often in difficult terrain, and maintain trails and parks when there’s no fire to attend to—it is voluntary. But even given those allowances, the kind of maneuvering and dependence the state has demonstrated is downright worrying. Especially given that inmate work programs are usually meant to teach convicts life skills they can use at a future job on the outside. And as few convicts can or do make the jump to firefighting outside of incarceration, the program seems much more coercive and manipulative than our society ought to be comfortable with.

Given the trouble California has run into recruiting inmates from county jails, it’s very likely that the nixed expansion was a reflection of a genuine concern about the long-term manpower viability of the program. As such, killing it may eventually rob California of enough potential convict laborers that the state is forced to explore other options to handle the increasing wildfire burden. (Although reaching that level of pressure will take time, especially considering an existing state plan to expand the program to those with up to seven years left on their sentences.) And there are many other options, from calling in interstate, military, or international aid in the short term, to just biting the goddamn bullet and paying for the fundamental services the state actually needs at a fair rate without relying on what we should hope will become a small pool of coerced penal labor.

If the state can be nudged away from its reliance on this labor, it will lose its incentive to oppose expanded parole and sentence-reducing work programs. Without a financial motivation to keep prisoners locked up, we can focus on helping inmates attain similar benefits without firefighter-level risks, thus decreasing strain on prison facilities and reaffirming our prison work programs as a tool for rehabilitation (rather than as an expendable state resource). Granted, the violent offender plan was killed for far less noble reasons. But if its death even dents the system of dependence on prison labor and its murky, questionable effects on our practices and priorities, that’ll do more good in the long run for everyone involved than the plan itself. So there are good reasons to celebrate the program expansion’s death—though those are probably not the reasons it was, in fact, scrapped.

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