200 Female Inmates Are Fighting California Wildfires For $1 An Hour

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The imprisoned women carry 40-pound backpacks to the fire line and are paid just $1 an hour for fighting in hazardous conditions.

United States

Huge swaths of California’s wine counties have been obliterated by 22 wildfires that have killed at least 23 people.

The October fires have also razed over 2,000 buildings and 170,000 acres of land — that’s bigger than the size of Chicago.

Firefighters have been working day and night to contain the inferno. Among them are 200 brave women, who are risking their lives working on the fires’ front lines — for just $1 an hour, plus $2 for the day.

“We are the ones that do the line. We are the ones that carry the hose out. We’re the line of defense,” Sandra Welsh, an inmate at Malibu Conservation Camp #13, told NBC News.

Welsh said the program, which allows inmates to sign up voluntarily, benefits her and her family.

“This prison trip has taken a lot out of their lives and I wanted them to have something to hold onto,” she said. “My mom’s a firefighter. I might be an inmate firefighter, but I’m a firefighter.”

However, not all inmates are as content with the job as Welsh, particularly because of the inhumanely low wages in exchange for the incredible hazard.

Some women make as little as $500 per year in camp in addition to a few hundred dollars extra battling the fires. A full time civilian firefighter's salary starts at around $40,000 per year.

“The pay is ridiculous,” La’Sonya Edwards told The New York Times. “There are some days we are worn down to the core. And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.”

The women also need to carry plenty of water, safety glasses, a hydration system, snacks and “ponies” — short hoses to attach to hydrants — which means they have to carry 40-pound backpacks.

However, even these harsh conditions are considered “improvement” over the boundaries of a traditional prison.

In fact, Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the corrections department, said female inmate firefighters “get paid better” than any other prison job.

Another greater incentive is that the women earn two days off their sentence for every day they spent in the fire camps as compared with other Californian inmates who only earn one day off for good behavior.

However, at least one politician is concerned about the plight of the inmates and has compared the program’s low wages to slavery.

“But they must be paid fairly for each day of work — and $1 an hour is not fair pay,” said Gayle McLaughlin, the ex-mayor of Richmond who is now running for lieutenant governor in California. “No matter how you may want to dress it up, if you have people working for nothing or almost nothing, you’ve got slave labor, and it is not acceptable.”

Almost 3,800 inmates fight fires in California; this makes up about 13 percent of the state’s firefighting force. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the inmates’ fire program saves taxpayers $124 million in a year.

Banner/Thumbnail: Reuters, Mike Blake

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