News & Politics

Women Inmates Are Fighting California's Raging Wildfires for as Little as $1 Per Hour

"We’re the line of defense,” one prisoner says with pride.

Photo Credit: Screenshot / NBC

At least 31 are dead, 170,000 acres of land are burned and 3,500 buildings have been damaged due to the wildfires ravaging Northern California. Thousands of firefighters are risking their lives trying to control the flames, and those on the front lines include female prison inmates working for about a dollar per hour.

NBC featured the story of several hundred incarcerated women in California who are among the first responders to the devastating fires. These women live on fire containment camps where they train and prepare for such disasters. They have fought over 150 fires so far in 2017 alone.

Sandra Welsh is a firefighter. But unlike most California firefighters, she is only paid $2 per day and doesn’t get to go home at the end of her shift. Because she's also a prison inmate.

“We are the ones that do the line. We are the ones that carry the hose out. We’re the line of defense,” Welsh said in a recent interview with NBC News. Welsh, an inmate at Malibu Conservation Camp #13, is one of about 200 incarcerated women incarcerated around the state who fight fires in California.

According to NBC, “about 3,800 inmates, both women and men, fight fires in California, making up about 13 percent of California’s firefighting force. The fire program saves taxpayers $124 million per year.”

"They get paid better than any other prison job," Bill Sessa, a spokesperson for the correctional facility told NBC. The women make $2 per day in the camp where they train, and $1 per hour for putting out actual fires.

Fighting fires may be a better job than others available in prison, but that bar is low. As Lauren Evans of Jezebel points out, these women are earning egregiously low salaries for any work in the U.S., but especially for such a dangerous job.

La’Sonya Edwards, an inmate who fights fires in southern California, told the New York Times in August that she makes around $500 per year in camp, plus an extra few hundred for working on the fire line. The salary of a full-time civilian fighter starts at around $40,000.

‘‘The pay is ridiculous,’’ she told the paper. ‘‘There are some days we are worn down to the core,’’ she said. ‘‘And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.’’

Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.

 

 

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