Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Wildfires and a Pandemic: A Double Threat to Incarcerated Firefighters

By Evin RothschildPublished January 30, 2021

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Recently, the news has focused on the raging wildfires in California, the carceral state of the country, and the COVID-19 pandemic. While these stand-alone problems are each detrimental in their own right, these three problems combined illustrate much of what is wrong with our country today: economic inequality, a mishandled pandemic, racial disparities, climate change, and issues within the criminal justice system.

Recently, the news has focused on the raging wildfires in California, the carceral state of the country, and the COVID-19 pandemic. While these stand-alone problems are each detrimental in their own right, these three problems combined illustrate much of what is wrong with our country today: economic inequality, a mishandled pandemic, racial disparities, climate change, and issues within the criminal justice system. 

Since World War 2, incarcerated individuals have served as firefighters in the state of California. Their contributions are instrumental in combating increasingly frequent wildfires and necessary under the current system so fire departments are able to deal with the severity of the blazes.  Due to climate change, California has been hotter and drier than normal, and these droughts are contributing to the bigger blazes.  However, incarcerated firefighters are paid a meager amount — just between $2 and $5 a day. They occasionally receive an additional $1 an hour when they are actively working on a fire. This cheap prison labor saves the California state government an estimated $90 to $100 million a year while exploiting the prison population.  Despite the danger, many inmates hope this practice continues because it gives them a sense of purpose and a chance to save lives. However, in order to make this job more beneficial for the inmates risking their lives, there needs to be an immediate increase in pay, increased early release opportunities, and a direct line to future procurement as a job as a full-time firefighter after release.

While the practice of underpaying incarcerated individuals to risk their lives is  already reminiscent of slavery, the COVID-19 pandemic created an additional obstacle. Prisons in the United States have become hotspots in the pandemic due to their overcrowded populations, reduced sanitation and PPE options, and subpar healthcare services. Despite visitor limitations for inmates in many facilities, inmate transfers and correctional facilities staff have caused outbreaks at countless facilities, including the California Correctional Center, which prompted the state to lockdown the surrounding firefighting training camps. This meant that in July, only 94 of the 192 firefighting crews were available to combat the fires. In addition to the lockdowns, many inmates trained in firefighting were released early in order to manage overcrowding in the prison system amid the backdrop of the pandemic. These early release programs were a positive and much needed policy intervention to save lives during the pandemic. However, the state’s continued reliance on the incarcerated firefighters now leaves them vulnerable when it comes to fighting the blazes.

California’s current predicament is indicative of quite a few greater problems in the United States that need policy responses. Firstly, climate change is an immediate threat to the safety of people living in the United States, and across the world, and if immediate action is not undertaken, the country is at risk for permanent damages and a vastly different, dystopian-looking future. These fires are just one symptom of increased unpredictability of weather patterns and natural disasters. Next, prison reform and decarceration is necessary in the United States. The overpopulated prisons are filled with individuals locked up with arbitrary, unfair, and disproportionate sentences that systematically affect minority communities at greater rates. Comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system as well as increased investment in communities will be necessary to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals.  While working to decrease the prison population, it is also important that prisons provide better and more accessible healthcare, especially during the pandemic. Already, 1454 prisoners have died from COVID-19, many of whom may have had better chances with earlier intervention. Prisons should also provide PPE, such as face masks and hand sanitizer, to all inmates as well as require corrections officers to wear face masks at all times while working in the facility to decrease the incidence of infections.

In California specifically, the government should increase pay to incarcerated firefighters as well as create a system that allows for a pipeline to a full-time job as a firefighter after release. By paying these hardworking individuals more and investing in their future, this will benefit the community by increasing the number of full time firefighters as well as easing the transition from prison back to the community. The pandemic and fires have elevated other first responders to hero-like status in the community, and it is important to recognize that incarcerated firefighters are making the same sacrifices in order to benefit the community as others.