CDCR inmate firefighters fighting out-of-control wildfires that are extremely close to them.
Community Programs for Prisoners Prison System Issues Recidivism in the US

CDCR Inmates Fight Wildfires for Pennies… Will They Come Home to Jobs?

California prison inmates are fighting out-of-control wildfires for a measly $1 per hour. Yet, CDCR promises to offer them NO help finding jobs when they get out.

california wildfires
Image Source: Star Tribune

Let’s be clear. $1 per hour may sound like pennies to those of us on the outside. But, in a prison system where inmates generally make anywhere between 8 cents per hour to 95 cents per hour, $1 is top pay.

This is especially true considering how many hours the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) prison firefighters have been putting in to fighting out-of-control wildfires in California. Those in CDCR Conservation Fire Camps volunteer for the programs.

CDCR Prison Firefighters Take the Frontline for Northern California

In October, over 1,700 inmate firefighters served on the front lines fighting raging wildfires throughout Northern California. Mendocino and Sonoma community members evacuated to safety.

At the same time, the prisoners worked up to 72-hour shifts (STRAIGHT), trying to get the fires under control.

And, they did much more than just fight fires for the citizens of Northern California. The CDCR prison firefighters were also responsible for:

  • Keeping the property of the residents safe
  • Clearing brush from the communities
  • Getting rid of potential fuel and hazardous items
  • Digging containment lines (generally, mere feet from the blazes)

Now, Southern California is in a battle to contain the inferno wreaking havoc on homes and community members. Hundreds have join this battle on the fire lines.

CDCR inmate firefighter crew returns to base after battling Sonoma, CA blazes.
CDCR inmate firefighter crew returns to base after battling Sonoma, CA blazes. Image Source: kqed

Benefits of Joining a Prison Conservation Camp

To many prison loved ones, these programs are known simply as prison fire camps. There are some benefits to joining such programs, that go beyond just a few extra pennies per hour:

  • Higher pay (a given)
  • Better food (by prison standards)
  • More time out in the open air
  • Not enclosed behind an electrified fence
  • Prison visits are more welcoming for family and friends on the outside
  • More “good time” earned than other prisoners, so they may be released faster
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So, as you can see, the benefits of volunteering to join a fire camp knowing they’ll be fighting out-of-control wildfires are great. And, according to CDCR Spokesman Bill Sessa, there are:

“…many advantages … that can benefit [them] immediately if they choose to volunteer.”

CDCR prison firefighters are the first line of defense against the war on wildfires in the state.
CDCR prison firefighters are the first line of defense against the war on wildfires in the state. Image Source: Global Citizen

What are the Long-Term Benefits of Joining Prison Fire Camps?

Yet, what are the long-term benefits for these more than 3,700 men, women and juvenile inmates now fighting out-of-control wildfires in the State of California?

They volunteer roughly 10 million hours annually responding to various emergencies, including fires. The firefighting inmates also handle various community conservation projects, such as:

  • Fire protection
  • Flood protection
  • Reforestation
  • Park maintenance

CDCR Inmates: Fighting Out-of-Control Wildfires Across the State

The fact is… CDCR prison firefighters are usually the first line of defense against the spread of a California wildfire. Their training gives them the ability to cut trenches and such to clear away materials that are combustible.

These firebreaks help to redirect, and in some cases, stop the flames from advancing. But, in the end, do long-term benefits actually exist for these brave volunteer firefighters? Most say no.

Their civilian counterparts, the actual firefighters, tend to work far away from the California flames. They are the ones flying the helicopters and driving the big water trucks.

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CDCR inmate firefighters fighting out-of-control wildfires that are extremely close to them.
Inmates from Oak Glen Fire Camp in Riverside retreat to higher ground as the flames start to move close while they work to control the fire near Oriole Court in Carlsbad, Calif., Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Thousands were asked to evacuate their homes in Carlsbad after the blaze erupted at about 10:34 a.m. Wednesday and spread through rapidly heavy brush before jumping into residential areas. (AP Photo/U-T San Diego, Hayne Palmour IV). Image Source: Prison World Blog

Two CDCR Inmate Firefighter Die Fighting Blazes

At the end of the day, fighting fires can be a fatal job. This year alone, two CDCR prison firefighters died in the line of duty:

  1. Matthew Beck – This 26-year-old CDCR inmate firefighter was crushed to death when a tree fell
  2. Frank Anaya – This 22-year-old CDCR firefighter was killed in a chainsaw accident

When asked what the primary focus of the CDCR fire camp is, Sessa replied:

“Our primary mission as a corrections system or a department is to provide inmates with skills to improve their lives when they leave.

Our focus is on rehabilitation. [The argument made in federal court] did not at all reflect what we believe, or what the attorney general’s office believed either.”

But, how does this program enrich the lives of ex-prisoners after they are released? Will these inmates be allowed to use these skills on the outside? Will there be some type of job placement assistance for these brave prison firefighters who risk their lives containing and fighting out-of-control wildfires in California?

Fire Camps in California
Fire Camps in California. Image Source: Prison Talk

Mass Incarceration Fuels Fire Camp Participation in California

Back in the fall of 2014, the State of California was dealing with major prison overcrowding issues. However, the state’s attorney general argued against lowering Cali’s prison population. His rationale:

“[This] would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown stated:

“It’s very important when we can quantify that manpower, utilize it.”

Utilize the manpower? Is that another way of saying, “Let’s keep practicing mass incarceration in order to properly staff our under-paid team of CDCR firefighters”???

CDCR’s Purpose for the Prison Firefighter Program

According to CDCR, it’s prison firefighter program, AKA fire camp, is supposed to serve as rehabilitation for the volunteers. But, as many CDCR prison loved ones find ourselves asking regularly, where’s the rehabilitation in this?

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These CDCR firefighters are being trained to perform work they will probably never get to do on the outside. Finding a job in this field as felons when they get out will be next to impossible.

Like most, the Los Angeles County Fire Department does NOT hire felons. And, CDCR does NOT provide its exiting inmates with help finding firefighting jobs.

As a matter of fact, CDCR does not offer any type of job placement assistance for exiting prisoners… even those who’ve risked their lives for the state’s community members for a measly $1 per hour.

They simply leave these prisoners high and dry upon release, with skills they can never use on the outside with felony records. This is true even after they spent hundreds of hours fighting out-of-control wildfires for CDCR and the State of California.

Go Cali! What a way to contribute to recidivism in the state!!!

Kiesha Joseph
Kiesha Joseph is the owner of Content Marketing Geek Corporation. Her company provides white hat, inbound marketing services for small businesses, entrepreneurs, real estate professionals, bloggers and authors. Ms. Joseph enjoys swimming, cooking, eating, dancing, and of course writing. Kiesha is currently the managing content editor for Prison Rideshare Network news for inmates' loved ones.