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El Paisano

California Minimum Wage Gets Burnt Down To $1 For Inmates Fighting Fires

Madelyn Gastelum, Staff Writer

Fires Rage & Inmates can Help

California firefighters are dealing with two major wildfires, in the Southern part of the state the Woolsey fire has burned more than 70.000 acres and has taken two lives, and in the north, the Campfire has taken more than 27,000 acres and caused Sacramento State to close its campus due to poor air quality. With both the southern and northern regions of the state being threatened by fires, fire stations everywhere are coming together to extinguish the flames. But with a lack of manpower fire stations, like many other manual labor type jobs, turn to the prison system for cheap labor.

This is where the state gets the numbers to fight fires on such a large scale. Prisons hold a lot of different work camps where you can work to cut time off of your sentence and make a little money for provisions while there. Former Inmate of the Wasco State Prison, Marcos Macias, gave some insight on why some people are willing to risk their lives for just a $1 an hour.

The biggest difference between other work camps that are offered and the firefighting one is that your charges must be nonviolent, and you must also pass a physical exam with boot camp training as well. “I don’t think it was as intense as a real firefighters training but they do teach you the basics to it.”

Firefighting Camps Offer Inmates a 2nd Chance

The biggest incentive to the firefighting camp is what it can do to someone’s time in there, “If you do get into the camp it cuts your sentence in half and that could make a really big difference for some of the guys who have family outside.” Macias also brought up that the $1 an hour is more than some of the inmates would ever get if they weren’t in the camp. He said that a lot of the guys don’t have family outside of the prison and without that they have no one to put money on their books so something like that could be life-changing for someone.

To enjoy the benefits of the fire camp inmates don’t have to complete a certain amount of hours in the fire camp. Their involvement along with good behavior will cut their sentence in half even if they don’t face a fire during their enrollment in the camp. The greatest thing that inmates take away from the fire camp is the freedom that they get to experience. Former Inmate, Jacques D’Elia, who battled fires at Valley View Conservation Camp, stated in an interview with The Marshall Project what it was like. I forgot I was incarcerated sometimes. The staff treated you like a human, not a number. The boundaries were more relaxed — just a split-rail fence and some out-of-bounds markers, no locks on the doors. All they did was do a “count” of everyone every two hours.”

California faces fires every year and they grow more abundant after each fire season so work camps offer a second chance to inmates who want to do something for something greater than themselves.

A print version of this article appeared on Tuesday, Nov. 20. An editor adjusted this article for an online publication.

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California Minimum Wage Gets Burnt Down To $1 For Inmates Fighting Fires