On The Front Lines Of California's Fires Are A Group Of Female Inmates

"I might be an inmate firefighter, but I’m a firefighter.”

Amongst the 10,000 firefighters battling blazes across California, there is a unique group of firefighters earning just one dollar an hour for their work: some 3,800 inmates across California.

Those inmates account for a little more than 13 percent of California's firefighters, saving the state $124 million per year. Of those 3,800 inmates, around 200 are women.

In recent weeks, as fires have been raging across Northern California, those women have been particularly busy. 200,000 acres of land have been destroyed, 100,000 people have been displaced, close to 6,000 homes have been damaged and at least 40 people have died in the California wildfires, according to The Los Angeles Times

"We have female crews from other camps working on the Canyon Fire in Anaheim and also up in Napa," Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the Malibu Conservation Camp #13 corrections facility told NBC Los Angeles. "The crews from the Malibu camp are on standby and also have to provide back-up fire protection for L.A. County."

To be housed at one of the firefighting camps, inmates must volunteer, have exhibited good behavior, pass a physical examination, and be imprisoned for a non-violent crime. Any history of arson or sexual offense disqualifies an inmate from being eligible. 

Sandra Welsh, who is at the Malibu camp, was featured in an NBC News story last month, and said that she chose to go to the firefighter camp for her children.


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"This prison trip has taken a lot out of their lives and I wanted them to have something to hold onto," Welsh said. "My mom's a firefighter. I might be an inmate firefighter, but I'm a firefighter."

But the arrangement isn't without controversy. Prison inmates doing hard labor has long been a topic of debate for civil rights activists, and the work these inmates do can be excruciating. Not only are they risking their lives, they can end up working for 16 hours straight in extreme conditions where they are wearing 40 pound packs, cutting containment lines that stop fires from spreading and using chainsaws. There is little difference between the work these women do and what other firefighters across the country are doing.

Gayle McLaughlin, the former mayor of Richmond, Calif., described the arrangement as "slave labor" on her campaign website in September.

"They must be paid fairly for each day of work – and $1 an hour is not fair pay," she wrote about the statewide fire programs. "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."

The corrections department says for the general prison population, about 75 percent of prisoners are arrested again within five years of going free. For those who took part in the firefighting program, the rates are 10 percent lower. The pay, too, is better than most other prison jobs, Sessa told NBC News. For every day an inmate firefighter is at a fire camp, they get two days shaved off of their sentence. 

Melissa Logan, who worked at the Malibu fire camp, told NBC that she found the work worthwhile.

"You get to help people," she said. "It's really gratifying and empowering when you're driving by and people are holding up signs saying 'Thank you, firefighters' and they're crying because you just saved their homes."


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