As Wildfires Rage, Inmate Firefighters Are in Short Supply

A series of criminal justice reform measures have reduced the number of inmates serving time in California’s state prisons. That has cut the ranks of inmate firefighters dramatically at a time when devastating wildfires are becoming the norm.

Inmates have been fighting California’s wildfires since the 1940s, when the state first called up prisoners to replace men assisting the war effort. More than 3,700 men and women—and even some juvenile offenders—now voluntarily serve on the force. Collectively, they make up roughly a third of the state’s wildfire-fighting personnel, and work an average of 10 million hours each year responding to fires and other emergencies and handling community-service projects like park maintenance, reforestation, and fire and flood protection.

But over the course of the last decade, their ranks have begun to thin. As drought and heat have fueled some of the worst fires in California’s history, the state has faced a court mandate to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. State officials, caught between an increasing risk of wildfires and a decreasing number of prisoners eligible to fight them, have striven to safeguard the valuable labor inmates provide by scrambling to recruit more of them to join the force. Still, these efforts have been limited by the courts, public opinion, and how far corrections officials and elected leaders have been willing to go: The number of inmate firefighters has fallen 13 percent since 2008.

This push-and-pull between changing carceral policy and the demands of firefighting is unlikely to abate anytime soon, and surely not before the next fire season begins this spring. After a series of intensely destructive seasons linked to climate change, scientists are projecting that California will face still more disastrous blazes in the future; at the same time, voters and officials are contemplating further reducing imprisonment around the state. The fate of the inmate-firefighting program lies in the balance between these trends: buoyed by the increasing need for cheap labor, threatened by the pending decline in incarceration.

Read more at the Atlantic


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