They are a critical part of the state’s firefighting effort, and are more important than ever in the age of drought and intensified fire seasons. Unfortunately, the state has released a lot of low-level felons the past four years to reduce prison overcrowding and is running out of cheap labor to fight fires.
Inmates receive $1 an hour and time-served credit for the work. They are also utilized in other emergencies, including floods and earthquakes, and work on conservation projects on public lands and local community services projects.
The CDCR says on its website that the state saves $80 million a year by using cheap Conservation Camp labor. BuzzFeed calculated it is closer to $1 billion. The state didn’t want to pay either price hiring replacement labor.
That became shockingly evident last November when the Los Angeles Times noted that lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris argued in court that firefighting inmates shouldn’t be able to take advantage of court orders to offer more inmates work-earned parole.
Reporter Paige St. John wrote that they argued “if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.”
The CDCR is right that the prison labor pool Cal Fire draws firefighters from is dwindling. It’s possible the state will have to actually recruit and train regular workers to do the tough and dangerous job—and pay them accordingly.
But that doesn’t seem to be the plan for now. The state is going to clean up some of the “confusion and misunderstanding” surrounding the proposal and give it another shot later. They want to reclassify inmates who were imprisoned for serious offenses as nonviolent felons if they have stayed out of trouble.
But prison officials promise to be thorough in their evaluations and very selective in who would be eligible to fight fires. They wouldn’t want anyone dangerous walking away from a minimum-security fire camp facility.