More than 1 in 10 firefighters at the Basin Complex – California’s biggest ongoing forest fire – are trained state prisoners, says the Christian Science Monitor. Despite the danger and 24-hour shifts involving 3,000-foot climbs with 40-pound packs, some inmates push on. “Plenty of times I’ve wanted to quit,” says one. “It teaches you to persevere.” With 2,500 trained prisoners fighting fires, California’s inmate firefighting program has proved invaluable as the state struggles to throw enough manpower at this year’s lightning-strike siege.
For prisoners in the 60-year-old program, firefighting fosters new growth in their character. The program has had few escapes or incidents of misbehavior. “I don’t worry too much. When the bell rings, they are firemen and they act like firemen,” says Mike Parry, a crew technical specialist with the state agency CAL FIRE. “The inmates, at least in our camp, really never let me down on a fire.” Inmates are paid $1 an hour for fighting fires and get time shaved off their sentences. Non-inmate labor goes for $10 to $12 an hour, not counting overtime. The voluntary program sets some requirements: no arsonists, sex offenders, or high-level prisoners. Graduates must pass tests of physical stamina and firefighting basics. The program saves California taxpayers more than $80 million annually on average. The use of prison labor in the U.S. has expanded with the growing ranks of inmates and a general loosening of the rules governing the practice, says Noah Zatz, a law professor at University of California Los Angeles.