Prison Firefighting Program Pays a Dollar an Hour to Fight California Wildfires

California relies on thousands of prisoners, including many women, to battle the wildfires burning statewide. Prisoner firefighters gain training and earn time off of their sentences for good behavior, typically two days off for each day served. But critics of the program say the state is exploiting prisoners’ eagerness to earn time for early release. While salaried firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $74,000 plus benefits, inmates earn just $2 per day with an additional $1 per hour when fighting an active fire. According to some estimates, California avoids spending about $80-$100 million a year by using prison labor to fight its biggest environmental problem. For more we speak with Romarilyn Ralston, a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners-LA Chapter, and the program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State University, Fullerton. Ralston was imprisoned for 23 years, during which time she worked as a fire camp trainer. We also speak with Deirdre Wilson, who was imprisoned for three-and-a-half years, and worked as a landscaper at a women’s fire camp in San Diego.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our coverage of the California wildfires with a look at who’s actually fighting the fires, and it may just surprise you. In addition to roughly 7,000 full-time and seasonal California firefighters, the state relies on about 3,500 prisoners, including many women, to battle the blazes. The California Department of Corrections tweeted last week that at least 2,000 prisoners are currently fighting the wildfires burning across the state, including 58 youth offenders. Earlier this month, California Governor Jerry Brown thanked the firefighters on the front lines, including those who are incarcerated.

GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN: You have heard there is a tremendous effort fighting these fires, and I want to personally thank all of the firefighters who are on the line — the members of CAL FIRE, also the National Guard and the thousands of inmates who are also on the line fighting to protect lives and bring these fires to a quick close to the extent that’s at all possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Prisoner firefighters live in one of 43 low-security field camps throughout the state and are routinely called upon to fight fires. Prison firefighters earn time off of their sentences for good behavior, typically two days off for each day served. But critics of the program say the state is exploiting prisoners’ eagerness to earn time for early release. While salaried firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $74,000 a year plus benefits, prisoners earn just two dollars per day with an additional dollar per hour when fighting active fire. According to some estimates, California avoids spending about $80 million to $100 million a year by using prison labor to fight its biggest environmental problem.

For more, we’re joined by two women, Romarilyn Ralston, a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, L.A. chapter, program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State University. Romarilyn was in jail for 23 years, and while she was imprisoned, she was a fire camp trainer and a clerk for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Also with us, Deirdre Wilson, former program coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. She was imprisoned for three and a half years. She spent a year of her time behind bars as a landscaper at Puerta La Cruz, a women’s fire camp in San Diego. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Romarilyn, let’s begin with you. Explain what these fire camps are. People who are watching or listening right now might be completely shocked to hear that prisoners are on the front lines of fighting these fires. Explain what the program is.

Read the entire story featuring Resist grantee California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

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