A group of prisoners being sent away in a truck to fight fires.
Prison Labor

California’s Use of Prisoners to Fight Wildfires Is Comparable to Slave Labor

California pays prison inmates volunteering to fight wildfires $2 per day. Regular firefighters are paid up to $16.50 per hour. This is slave labor.


California depends on volunteer prison inmates to fight its frequent wildfires. This is not a new practice. The state has used prison labor since the World War II. Roughly 3,400 prison inmates were deployed to work next to 14,000 myriad firefighters to combat the ongoing fires raging through the state.

The prison force includes 58 youth offenders. Prisoners are paid $2 per day and an additional $1 per hour for fighting nature. Regular firefighters are paid $74,000 annually as state employees.

126 Nevada Prison Inmates Deployed to Fight Raging California Fires

People everywhere are appalled at the idea of prison labor. They are also appalled inmate firefighters only get paid $2 per day. This is nothing compared to the fact regular state firefighters are paid $11 per hour and $16.50 for overtime.

Inmate firefighters face the same mortal dangers that regular firefighters face. They are fighting the same dangerous, life-threatening wildfires. Advocates (and others) believe they should be paid equal wages.

Paying Inmate Firefighters Peanuts Is Comparable To Abolished Slave Labor

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agree

“inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire’s spread.”

But are they paid fairly? Are inmate firefighters compensated enough for their labor? Answer after you considering fighting wildfires is a life and death venture. Meanwhile, many inmates combating wildfires in California say they do more than clear brushes. They also put on gear to put out fires and other things.

A group of prisoners being sent away in a truck to fight fires.
These life-saving inmates may have experience working the same jobs as those paid higher wages than them, but when released, they’d still require certification and training before being considered employee material. Image Source: The San Diego Union Tribune

Analysts calculate that by paying inmates a paltry $2 per day to fight wildfires, California saves between $80 million and $100 million annually from this cheap labor. Advocates compare using inmates to fight wildfires and paying them $2 per day to slave labor.

The 13th Amendment abolished slave labor and involuntary servitude. Except when forced labor is imposed as punishment for a convicted crime. Many people across the United States hate the concept of prison labor. They compare it to forced, slave labor.

California Treats Inmate Firefighters as “Slaves of the State”

It is true prison inmates willingly choose to volunteer for firefighting labors. But consider the forced idleness inmates are subjected to for years on end. They would be willing to do anything that takes them outside prison walls.

To Redeem Their Honors, Over 200 California Female Prisoners Fight Wildfires to the Death

Prisoners may not even mind doing any work for free. As long as they have the opportunity to go outside prison walls and engage in physical exercise. But that does not give states the leeway to exploit their incarcerated statuses.

Shortly after slave labor was abolished in the United States, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 1871 that prisoners are “slaves of the state”. That ruling was very unfortunate. It seems the state of California upholds the concept, treating inmates fighting wildfires as slaves of the state.

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Charles Omedo
Charles Omedo has a degree in Mass Communication and a PGD in Digital Communication. He worked as a newspaper/magazine reporter and editor for many years. Now, he writes daily news articles for private clients. Charles has written for US/UK/Canadian/Indian clients on various niches. He currently writes prison news for loved ones of inmates on the Prison Rideshare Network.