Written in October 2003
California's budget secret:
Prisoners form core of forest fire fighting army
By Peter Wagner
In California, up to three quarters of the crew members fighting California fires are prisoners. In exchange for a reduction in sentence length, 4,100 minimum security prisoners work fighting fires and on public works projects for a $1 or less an hour.
Prisoners contributed 3.1 million hours fighting fires in California last year, earning only $1 an hour. By contrast, the average forest fire fighter in the U.S. earns $17.19 an hour, or $35,760 a year. Prisoners working on public works projects earn even less, $40 a month.
Using prisoner labor saves the state of California $200 million a year, $80 million in salary and $120 million in employee benefits and security costs. With almost one-third of minimum security prisoners moved from behind razor wire and onto the fire-lines, corrections costs are therefore lower.
The program is not limited just to adult prisoners. Last year the California Youth Authority contributed 684,000 slave-hours to firefighting, saving the state $3.9 million. Of course, it does not appear any of the savings were redirected into college scholarships for previously incarcerated youths.
Prisoners take the jobs because it reduces their sentence, gets them outside, and pays better than the typical prison job. But there are risks. Four years ago a prisoner was killed when he fell 150 feet down a slope fighting a Ventura County fire. The prisoner profiled in the San Diego Union Tribune, Peter Quintana, explained how prisoners are so desperate to earn money or shorten their sentences that they jeopardize their own health working in unsafe conditions for low wages:
"He believes he broke a toe in March while clearing a fire line to slow a blaze near Lakeside. 'It happens' he said. 'It was about 2 or 3 am and we didn't have much light. I swung my Pulaski (a tool to clear vegetation) and it bounced off a branch and hit my toes.' Rather than report the injury and risk being dropped from the program, Quintana said he ignored the pain and kept on working."
Sources: San Diego Union-Tribune August 12, 2003 and U.S. Department Bureau of Labor Statistics