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NYT Investigative Report – Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires

The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires By choice, for less than $2 an hour, the female inmate firefighters of California work their bodies to the breaking point. Sometimes they even risk their lives.
“California’s inmate firefighters choose to take part in the grinding and dangerous work they do. And they get paid for it, though not much. They have to pass a fitness test before they can qualify for fire camps. But once they are accepted into a camp, the training they receive, which often lasts as little as three weeks, is significantly less than the three-year apprenticeship that full-time civilian firefighters get. When they work, California’s inmates typically earn between 8 cents and 95 cents an hour. They make office furniture for state employees, state license plates, prison uniforms, anything that any state institution might use. But wages in the forestry program, while still wildly low by outside standards, are significantly better than the rest. At Malibu 13, one of three conservation camps that house women, the commander, John Scott, showed me a printout: Inmate firefighters can make a maximum of $2.56 a day in camp and $1 an hour when they’re fighting fires. Those higher wages recognize the real dangers that inmate firefighters face. In May, one man was crushed by a falling tree in Humboldt County; in July, another firefighter died within a week after accidentally cutting his leg and femoral artery on a chain saw. But, after visiting three camps over a year and a half, I could see why inmates would accept the risks. Compared with life among the general prison population, the conservation camps are bastions of civility…inmate firefighters, who are on-call continuously, are considered as a state resource. The Conservation Camp Program saves California taxpayers approximately $100 million a year, according to C.D.C.R. Several states, including Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming and Georgia employ prisoners to fight fires, but none of them rely as heavily on its inmate population as California does. In the fall of 2014, as the state’s courts were taking up the issue of overcrowded prisons, the office of California’s attorney general argued against shrinking the number of inmates. Doing so, it claimed, ‘‘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, Gov. Jerry Brown told a local CBS affiliate, ‘‘It’s very important when we can quantify that manpower, utilize it.”

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