Government Turns Convicts into Trained Firefighters

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Courtesy of APLA

During the recent California wildfires, the government has employed the use of prisoners to combat the fires.

Colleen Aitken, Staff Writer

The legality and morality of prisoners having jobs, especially high-risk occupations such as firefighting, while incarcerated is continuing to be debated in California. It’s especially relevant now with the current rise in wildfires and lack of firefighting labor from prisoners now that inmates can become eligible for early release due to COVID-19. 

Firefighters have included active inmates since the 1940’s to replace men who went to serve overseas in WW2, and have been vital in the effort of preventing and putting out wildfires since. Currently, about 20% of California’s firefighters are inmates, with over 3,700 offenders in the force.

Inmates do everything normal firefighter do, from cutting and clearing flammable brush to putting out fires and digging containment lines, often dangerously close to flames. 

For inmates, perks of being on the force include higher pay, with inmates making as much as one dollar an hour while actively fighting fires and two dollars a day when they’re not. These firefighters live on camps and eat better than regular inmates do, as well as being able to accelerate time off of their sentences. They’re also able to be more out in the open and have the ability to be active and productive, which many inmates prefer to being in cells. 

Gavin Newsom’s new bill to make it easier for inmates who already served when incarcerated to pursue a career in fighting fires is an excellent step on the path of lowering the rate of repeat offenders.”

California currently saves 100 million taxpayer dollars annually with this program, and expanding it and others like it would save money and decrease overcrowding in prisons, a substantial issue in California. 

Ex-cons often struggle to get jobs upon release, which leads to reincarceration instead of rehabilitation. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “An estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.” Gavin Newsom’s new bill to make it easier for inmates who already served when incarcerated to pursue a career in fighting fires is an excellent step on the path of lowering the rate of repeat offenders.

These prisoners receive very little for risking their lives, making much less than regular firemen and often working 24 hour shifts to contain blazes. Many love the work and they deserve the chance to pursue firefighting as a career once they are free. 

Programs that teach convicts important skills that aid in acquiring jobs after release are vital in rehabilitating prisoners and stopping repeat offenders. The idea that letting prisoners pursue skills and careers while incarcerated won’t “punish” them enough for their crimes is ridiculous. We should focus not on punishing these people for their previous transgressions, but giving them the resources they need to not have to break the law again.