Inmates Fighting Wildfires in California

The summer of 2018 has been a bad one for California wildfires, a common occurrence that this year has been out of hand. And as in years past, California is using inmate labor to assist in the fighting of these fires. While the practice is not without controversy, it has undoubtedly made a difference.

A common perception is that inmates are being forced into fighting fires. However, the truth is firefighter is a sought-after job for inmates, who have to pass testing and demonstrate long-term good behavior before being picked for the detail. Some inmates like the increased pay (although still very low by non-inmate standards) and some even say the food served in the camps is better, which is a nice perk. And some inmates say that despite the dangers the fires pose, it still feels safer than being in a prison facility with more hardened types who lack the motivation to do something like fight fires in the wilderness.

One downside is the experience these individuals gain from fighting fires is difficult to convert into a job when they are released back into society. Although studies have shown that inmates who gain a work skill while incarcerated are less likely to re-offend, if they don’t get past the interview process, it’s hard for those work skill programs to have their maximum impact. State officials do say however in the case of inmate firefighters, it isn’t actually meant to be a job training program. Rather, it is a way for them to earn time off their sentences: two days for each day served in the fire camps.