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California Inmates Risk Their Lives Battling Fires For $1 An Hour

by Tod Perry

October 19, 2017

Fire season has been devastating in California this fall. As of mid-October, 17 large fires were burning across the northern part of the state, and five out of six major fires were contained in the south. Among the more than 10,000 firefighters waging war against the hellish flames are 3,800 heroes who earn just $1 an hour for their service: inmates of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

According to NBC Los Angeles, 13% of the state’s firefighters are inmates, which saves the state $124 million annually. Of the 3,800 inmate firefighters, 200 are women.

“We have female crews from other camps working on the Canyon Fire in Anaheim and also up in Napa,” Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the Malibu Conservation Camp #13 corrections facility told NBC Los Angeles. “The crews from the Malibu camp are on standby and also have to provide back-up fire protection for L.A. County.”

Female inmate firefighters, working in groups of about 14, use chainsaws and hand tools to cut containment lines that stop fires from spreading. “We basically fight fires, and it gives us a chance to better ourselves mentally and physically,” Latoya Najar, an inmate told NBC Los Angeles. “Every day is a difficult day,” Najar said. “This will show you that you can do anything you put your mind to.” Najar’s camp is a busy one; the Malibu Conservation Fire Camp #13 has worked over 170 fires in 2017 alone. 

Inmates can volunteer for the firefighting camps if they are imprisoned for a nonviolent crime, exhibit good behavior, and pass a physical examination. Those with any histories of sexual assault or arson are not considered for positions. The job is high-paying in terms of prison employment. Inmates receive $2 per day in firefighter camp and an extra $1 per hour when working a fire. There’s another added bonus for all the hard work: Inmates receive two days off their sentence for each day in fire camp. 

Preview and share images via NBC Los Angeles and David McNew/Getty Images.

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