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Climate Report Southwest

As wildfires rage, California is putting prisoners to work on the front lines

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California’s dry climate, Santa Ana winds, and long periods of drought create the perfect combination for wildfires. Every year between May-November at the height of wildfire season, the state turns to inmates for help.

California isn’t the only state with a prison firefighter program, but they rely on inmate firefighters far more than anyone else.

California Inmate Firefighters
California Prison Firefighters

Inmates aren’t allowed to operate helicopters or even a hose, they’re given hand tools, such as chainsaws and axes, to battle flames more than 100 feet tall and clear nearby brush to stop fires from spreading. For months, thousands of inmate firefighters battle raging wildfires in drought-stricken California. They earn just $2 an hour in return for doing an exhausting, dirty and dangerous job.

Western Wildfires in July
Burning wildfires in CA 2017

According to the CDCR, inmate firefighters work more than three million hours a year, saving the state an estimated $90 million a year.

When they’re not fighting fires, the inmates live in camps across the state in the middle of the forest and mountains to work on fire prevention and other community service like picking up roadkill.

Inmate firefighters are paid more than most prison labor jobs, but critics say states relying on the cheap labor of prisoners could prevent lawmakers from passing laws on criminal justice reform.

Prison labor has been a major source of revenue since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude "except as a punishment for crime" in 1865.

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Two California inmates have died in the line of duty since the start of 2017.

MORE FROM CIRCA:

Project JumpStart is helping some ex-convicts learn job skills

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