Who is fighting California fires? Creating a sense of purpose for prison inmates

By: Richard Osbaldiston, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology for EKU Online

In recent years, the number and intensity of California wildfires has grown.  The price tag on just one fire last September was over $1 billion in losses. 

To prevent even greater losses, California has an organized system of wilderness fire fighters.  Who are these fire fighters?

There are about 10,000 wilderness fire fighters in California, but interestingly, nearly half of them are prison inmates. 

The idea of forced labor for inmates is not new.  For centuries, prisoners have been required to do tasks that are deemed necessary for society but no one wants to pay for.  The most common image of this is prisoners working on the chain gang building railroads. 

Depending on your perspective, you can see this as being a very good thing or a very bad thing.  Let’s look at a couple of different perspectives. 

The cost-savings perspective: Fighting fires is incredibly hard labor and very expensive.  Using inmates saves California about $100 million dollars a year.

The slavery perspective: Inmates are paid about $2 per day they are in the program, and they make an extra $2 per hour when they are actively fighting the fires.  When fighting fires, they work 18-24 hour shifts.  They face a wide variety of hazards, including being up against smoke and flames 50 feet high.  It is not a stretch to call this modern-day slavery.

The corrupted-justice perspective: California needs prisoners.  In order to stock the fire camps, California needs to have a population of inmates.  California needs people to break the law and go to jail for it.  When thinking of the justice system, the paradigm used to be “Does the punishment fit the crime?” but it appears that the paradigm is switching to “Do we have enough criminals to do our dirty work?”

The psychological rehabilitation perspective: Many major theories of human behavior and motivation (for example, Maslow’s hierarchy and self-determination theory) observe that people need to feel a sense of competence, belongingness, and purpose in order to lead fulfilling, happy lives.  When inmates are taken out of the traditional prison setting and allowed to work as fire fighters, their prison experience is fundamentally changed for the better. 

They aren’t sitting in an institution passing time, they have the sense of performing an essential social duty.  They aren’t forming gangs based on race or conviction status, they are working together as interdependent teams.  For them, it’s not a sentence to join a fire crew, it’s an honor.

Using inmates as cheap labor to fight fires is a controversial policy, and thoughtful people can argue it from many perspectives.  But from the psychological perspective, inmates benefit from their time as fire fighters.

Published on August 02, 2016