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Prison inmates help battle fires for little pay

The number of deaths in the Camp Fire have increased to 85 people as of Nov. 26 with 993 people unaccounted for. More than 150,000 acres have burned with 18,804 structures destroyed.

The Woolsey Fire has burned nearly 100,000 acres and destroyed 1,500 structures. The Woolsey fire is now 100 percent contained as of Thanksgiving day.

CAL Fire has stated the Camp Fire is the deadliest fire in California history and Woolsey the eighth most destructive.

Cal Fire firefighters are not the only ones fighting the many fires burning in California. Alexandra Powell, public information officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said as of Wednesday November 21, there were 594 inmates and 66 CDCR staff members deployed to assist with wildfires around California.

“All inmates receive the same entry-level training that CAL Fire’s seasonal firefighters receive, which includes both classroom and field training,” Powell said.

There are 43 conservation camps, or fire camps, in 27 counties in California. Powell said these camps are minimum-security facilities that house 3,700 inmates who qualify for the fire camp program. There are three fire camps that are a part of the Humboldt-Del Norte Fire Unit: Eel River and High Rock Conservation Camps in Humboldt County and Alder Conservation Camp in Del Norte County.

“When not fighting fires, inmate firefighters perform conservation and community service projects,” Powell said. “They work Monday through Friday for eight hours a day performing a wide range of duties.

Powell said there are 96 inmates housed at High Rock and 91 at Eel River. The CDCR, or California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, states there are 109 inmates at Alder. California criminal defense attorneys, Greg Hill and Associates, said that every fire camp has at least 85 firefighters ready to fight fires.

High Rock, established in 1954, is one of the oldest conservation camps in California. Eel River has been active in since 1967 and Alder opened in 1961.

According to the CDCR website it is estimated Eel River Conservation Camp provided cost avoidance in excess of $1 million per year to the taxpayers of California.

“Taxpayers spend a yearly average of $81,458 per inmate,” Powell said. “Which covers things such as health and dental care, food, housing, as well as education and other rehabilitative opportunities while serving their time.

Powell said fire camp inmates earn an average of $2 a day, with an additional $1 an hour when fighting an active fire.

According to Glassdoor, the average base pay for a CAL Fire firefighter is $63,174 a year. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s second demand during the recent nationwide prison strike was to immediately end prison slavery. They called for all persons imprisoned to be paid prevailing wages for their labor.

“Inmates who volunteer to serve their sentence in a fire camp also receive additional time off their sentence,” Powell said.

The pay for inmates at fire camp is high compared to other prison labor. According to a 2018 CDCR report, depending on skill level an inmate will make $0.08-$.37 and hour. Powell said to be transferred to a fire camp an inmate must volunteer and have a minimum custody status.

This status is based on inmates’ good behavior in prison, conforming to rules within prison, and participation in rehabilitative programming.

High Rock and Alder Camps have college and other education course support and Eel River has music appreciation programs and gardening projects. All three have substance abuse meetings.

“Each volunteer inmate is evaluated individually to ensure that all those selected for the fire camp program are willing to be team members with nonviolent behavior, even if their original conviction was for a violent crime,” Powell said.

Powell said since 1983 there have been six deaths of fire camp inmate firefighters as a result of injuries sustained while actively working on containing a fire. She said the families of inmate firefighters may file a claim for death benefits in the event that the inmate dies from work-related injuries.

According to The Marshall Project, closest relatives are informed of loved ones’ deaths through voicemails, text messages and letters and can take anywhere from days to weeks to be notified, if at all.

“Just as with any job in prison, each inmate firefighter is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries sustained during work, and/or if those injuries result in proximate death,” Powell said.

Visit https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Conservation_Camps/ for more information.a

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