According to the CDCR, the program saves the state between $90 and $100 million a year, though some critics fear that the financial benefits of cheap prison labor incentivize mass incarceration. Gayle McLaughlin, who is currently running for California Lieutenant Governor, went so far as to call the program "slave labor."
Still, the CDCR maintains that the program helps both the state and the inmates.
"The fire camp program helps inmates build skills in firefighting, including positively working in a team environment," says Waters. "It can be an important part of an inmate's rehabilitation while they are serving their sentences with CDCR."
While some work programs have been known to decrease recidivism and improve outcomes after incarceration, programs like these rarely lead to firefighting jobs once inmates are released. Most fire departments, Axios reports, require firefighters to be a licensed EMT, and EMT certifying boards typically deny applicants with criminal history.
And many have critiqued programs like these for putting inmates in harm's way. Just like full-time civilian firefighters, inmate firefighters face serious risk when performing tasks like creating containment lines. According to NPR, six firefighters have lost their lives battling the wildfires in this region in recent weeks.
"When prisoners do volunteer to work, it's especially important that we make absolutely sure that they're making a free and uncoerced and truly voluntary choice," David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, tells WBUR. "That's especially important when the work they're doing is very dangerous, like fighting wildfires."
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