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Climate Change Meets Mass Incarceration: California’s Incarcerated Firefighters

Prisoners fight fires for low wages.

Firefighters set a backfire to make progress against the Thomas Fire before the winds return with the daylight near Lake Casitas on December 9, 2017, near Ojai, California. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images)

The intersection of climate change and mass incarceration is not unique to California, but as the state experiences its deadliest and most destructive year on record for wildfires — including the second-largest in the its history — the state’s incarcerated firefighter Conservation Camp program has come firmly under the microscope.

With fresh air, no walls and better treatment than prison, these “fire camps” have been commended as a model for rehabilitation. However, with wages at a fraction of minimum wage, they have been condemned as an exploitative labor practice.

Often missing from this debate are the voices of the firefighters themselves, whose perspectives offer an important nuance of criticism and possible solutions.

“What worries me when I hear too much discussion about fire camp as a form of slavery, is that they’re focusing on perhaps the best part of the whole prison system,” formerly incarcerated firefighter Matthew Hahn told Truthout. “The firefighters are in the public, that’s why they are getting the focus. At the same time, they are living in perhaps the best conditions in the California prison system.”

Selena Sanchez, an incarcerated firefighter until last year, describes an experience far better than prison but full of hard work, false promises and extremely low pay. “I’m not going to paint a pretty picture of it,” she says. “They ran us like dogs.”

Still, Sanchez says she would return to fire camp if she found herself back in prison.

The Conservation Camp program, joined at times by other local county prison so-called “Honor Camps,” began in 1946 as a partnership between the California State Detentions Bureau — now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) — and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire). It quickly grew to become a staple of fighting California’s wildfires, and has long been destination number one for prisoners serving time in the state prison system.

A nuanced look at the dynamics of this program, and the small percentage of prisoners eligible for participation, reveals that even though fire camps offer alternatives to prisoners being behind bars for all of their incarceration, the model has its shortcomings and should not be seen as a panacea to mass incarceration.

Mass Incarceration and the Fire Camps

Raised in Los Angeles, Sanchez was 12 when she was taken from her mother and placed in the foster care system. “I ran away, came back and ran away again,” she told Truthout. “I didn’t have much family or structure, and I returned again and again to what I knew best.”

By the time she was 18, Sanchez had already spent two years in LA County’s Central Juvenile Hall, which came under serious allegations” concerning staff accountability, condition of the facilities and the misuse of solitary confinement last year. Within a year of her release, Sanchez was arrested once again and sentenced to two years in the California Institute for Women in San Bernardino, a state prison. By the time she saw freedom again, Sanchez’s older brother was also incarcerated.

“I would say most of the things that make people go to prison are structural,” she said. “I have plenty of friends who are stuck in the same setting I was stuck in. They have nowhere to go.”

Sanchez’s story reflects the context behind this country’s prison labor force: poverty, low-paying jobs, the criminalization of drug use and structural racism create cycles of imprisonment that disproportionately target young Black, Native American and Latino people.

When compared to California’s many prisons, the relatively better circumstances offered by the Conservation Camps should be viewed within this context of mass incarceration.

“Yes, our California inmates (generally speaking) broke the law, and that is why they are in prison,” writes former Richmond mayor and current candidate for Lieutenant Gov. Gayle McLaughlin, “but it is also true that the law of our land too often broke them. The inequality of our laws too commonly cornered many of these persons into a world of despair from where their crimes emerged.”

CDCR press spokesman Bill Sessa told Truthout that the Conservation Camp program’s primary mission is “to help inmates better their lives and give them skills so they don’t come back to prison,” but while changing an individual’s perspective on life or the skills they have is important, those skills only go so far when someone who has been charged with a felony tries to find employment. “Reality is, when you get out, [employers] look more at your rap-sheet [rather] than your training,” Sanchez says.

The CDCR says it doesn’t track recidivism rates by program, but that there is an “anecdotal figure” that suggests it is 10 percent lower for those who come through the fire camps. Anecdotal because, according to Sessa, those who are recruited into the Conservation Camps are already “on a good path” and have been selected due to certain qualifications in sentencing, behavior and rehabilitation.

The CDCR’s website, however, makes no mention of rehabilitation. Instead, it states its mission as providing “an able-bodied, trained work force for fire suppression and other emergencies,” and boasts that the program “provides approximately three million person-hours … saving California taxpayers approximately $100 million” per year.

Indeed, much of the coverage of the fire camps focuses on the money it saves the state. On that ground, the debate about incarcerated firefighters as underpaid workers is made even more relevant.

Declining Wages for Prisoner Labor

A key irony of the fire camps should be obvious: If these people are claimed to be so dangerous to society that they must be locked inside of concrete cages, why are they considered safe enough to wield chainsaws and axes in dark, heavily populated neighborhoods?

“We used to laugh about that,” Sanchez said.

“It sounds to me like we trust them enough to have chainsaws and axes to save Oprah Winfrey’s home,” said Marissa Garcia, an organizer with Santa Barbara Prison Solidarity who has a loved one incarcerated in the state prison system, “but not enough to put them in a rehabilitation program.”

At the height of the nearby Thomas Fire, Garcia’s group organized a rally in Santa Barbara calling for living wages for incarcerated firefighters. It was perhaps the first event of its kind in US history.

“We have individuals that are being exploited instead of healed, and that shows the main priority of this state and the main priority of this country,” Garcia told Truthout. “If we were making society safer, we wouldn’t be continuing to build prisons.”

Gayle McLaughlin has been outspoken about her desire to end abusive labor practices in California prisons. “No more fire fighting slave labor” reads a headline on her campaign website. “No matter how you may want to dress it up, if you have people working for nothing or almost nothing, you’ve got slave labor, and it is not acceptable.”

McLaughlin is running for lieutenant governor on a platform with significant prison reforms, including the end of abusive wages, the right to vote for those convicted of felonies, and an end to hiring practices that bar prisoners from accessing decent jobs upon release.

Matthew Hahn, a former prisoner who has since become a union electrician and a blogger, feels conflicted in the wage debate. “I understand the idea of having equitable pay,” he explains, “but I don’t think the state would ever pay to have a fire camp program where we were costing that much money. And if the program stopped, you ultimately would have 4,000 guys and a couple hundred women who are behind the walls again.”

Today, the highest-paid member of a prison crew working during a fire is making about one-ninth of the minimum wage.

Selena Sanchez was a “First Sawyer,” or the lead chainsaw operator, in Malibu Camp 13 Crew 3. She fought nearly a dozen blazes in her nine months in camp, one of which was a three-week deployment. In this time, she endured grueling physical training, terrifying heat and countless sleepless nights, and she was on the fire line last February when a friend from her crew, Shawna Lynn Jones, was killed by a falling rock.

“They put us in scenarios where we are right up against a wildfire,” she continued. “I did it just to get out of that setting in prison.”

Sanchez said she supports the living wage call. “I mean, one dollar an hour is really not much,” she told Truthout. “They provide for us the orange outfits with white shirts, and that’s only for fires. But let’s say you want to relax after working on your bunk; you have to buy your own shorts, your own sweaters, socks. If you’re still hungry after a meal, they’re not going to feed seconds, so you buy noodles, chips, drinks. They don’t serve seconds.”

“The way to protect workers is the same inside and outside: unionization,” argues Chandra Bozelko, a former prisoner, in a recent LA Times op-ed. “It’s a misconception that inmate unions are against the law … That’s where the pushback against prison labor should be aimed, toward persuading wardens to allow physical and organizational safeguards for inmate workers, protections they can negotiate for themselves.” (However, to the authors’ knowledge, there are currently no public efforts to organize such a union within the Conservation Camps.)

Research by Truthout found that wages for incarcerated firefighters have risen twice since the Conservation Camp program started, but have become drastically lower in relation to California’s minimum wage. In 1962, the state minimum wage was $1.00 an hour and prisoner fire crews were making 50 cents per day plus 30 cents per hour, only if there was a fire. In 1983, when the minimum wage was $3.35, such pay had only increased by 25 cents to 75 cents an hour, plus $1.35, to $3.75 a day.

In short, an incarcerated firefighter during a fire in 1962 was earning about a third of the minimum wage. Today, the highest-paid member of a prison crew working during a fire is making about one-ninth of the minimum wage.

The vast majority of time spent doing labor in the fire camp program, however, is not firefighting, but landscaping, trail maintenance, shrub removal and various other state-contracted services. For this, prisoners earn as little as 1 percent of the minimum wage, compared to 4 percent in 1983.

Labor Shortages and Massive Fires

Compounding the fact that many former prisoner firefighters are unable to find work in the field is the fact that firefighters today are fighting more wildfires than they were in the past.

Mike Lopez, president of Cal Fire Local 2281, which represents Cal Fire employees, told Truthout that labor shortages are pushing firefighters to work 33 percent longer hours than they did in past years. “Rather than pay the cost of hiring more employees, the state would rather force our firefighters to work the overtime,” he said. “And I wouldn’t say we are approaching that point, we are already at that point.”

The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that the number of incarcerated firefighters has also fallen, by 13 percent since 2008. CDCR press spokesman Sessa contests this figure, saying the program has always been staffed adequately. “Some of the news stories have worked on an assumption that we have fewer inmate firefighters because we have fewer inmates. We actually have about the same number of firefighters as we’ve always had.”

A federal court ordered California to reduce its state prison population in 2011, leading to a “realignment,” or a shifting of prisoners from state prisons to county jails. These reforms also shrunk the number of people eligible for the firefighter program, so the CDCR began contracting with a dozen counties to extend the Conservation Camp program to them.

According to both Hahn and Sanchez, county prison conditions are far worse than than conditions in state prisons. “There were girls in there who hated fire camp,” Sanchez says, “who came from county, where you are locked up 23 hours a day.”

Even with increased recruitment and the county contracts, prisoner firefighters from similar programs in Idaho and Nevada were sent to California this year to provide backup labor in the Tubbs and Thomas fires.

On the Cal Fire side, entry-level firefighters earn only $10.50 an hour, California’s minimum wage. Before the first of several recent increases, most entry-level wildland firefighters in the state made $8.00 an hour. By 2023, the minimum wage will increase to $15.00.

Still, due to these low wages, many are leaving Cal Fire to take higher-paying jobs at municipal departments, which has led to vacancies of upwards of 15 percent. The combined impact of understaffing and a longer fire season means that Cal Fire firefighters are overworked, and the state pays significant overtime. “They are just flat-out tired,” Lopez said.

California has already spent an estimated $505 million suppressing fires this year, according to data from Cal Fire, ranking it amongst its most expensive years. As those fires continue burning, the Trump White House has proposed cuts of $300 million from wildfire programs across the country.

Life After Fire Camp

One might think that the professionally trained and experienced firefighters released from the prison firefighting program would be the perfect solution for filling vacancies at Cal Fire.

When she walked out of prison only two weeks after the death of Shawna Lynn Jones, Sanchez was eager to do just that. She applied twice to Cal Fire but received no reply. “We are sold a fairy tale,” she said. “When you’re in there, they give you false promises. They say when you get out, you can go join Cal Fire, and this and that. They paint a real pretty picture.”

Others like Sanchez have had similar experiences. As former incarcerated firefighter and engineer at Madera’s Cal Fire Station 5, Amika Sergejev wrote in a powerful op-ed last month: “When I got out, I wanted to put the amazing training I had received to use,” she wrote. “But I quickly found that my years of training and experience at Chowchilla couldn’t be used on the outside.”

One must get an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification to become a firefighter in California. But getting an EMT certification with a felony conviction requires a waiting period of 10 years after completion of any parole or probation period, while some felonies and all multiple-felony convictions bar such certifications for life. Multiple misdemeanor violent or drug offenses require a five-year wait.

On top of that, incarcerated firefighters are trained only in wildfire fighting, which means they don’t come out of prison with the structural-firefighting skills needed for an entry-level job at an agency like Cal Fire. “It’s not designed as a vocational program,” CDCR spokesman Sessa confirms.

The CDCR does not even keep data on how many graduates of the Conservation Camps have gone on to get jobs in similar industries. Sessa said this, like the numbers on the recidivism rate, would be an anecdotal figure.

Sessa also points to the fact that the CDCR doesn’t control the hiring practices of municipal fire departments, the Federal Wildlife Service or the National Forest Service. But should the CDCR or other state agencies be part of a larger effort to help steer both former and would-be prisoners towards job opportunities?

“I do believe the program needs to be improved,” Sanchez said. “There should be more programs out here to help people get jobs who are trained in a field. When we come out, we think we can do this, but there are no resources.”

Indeed, the systemic crisis of mass incarceration is as much an issue outside the walls as it is inside. Radical approaches to changing the conditions so many live in outside of prison are an essential part of transforming the way we approach crime and punishment.

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