With a number of wildfires in 2015 increasing to more than in the past five years combined, California is indeed facing one of its toughest years. In fact, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, for this year alone, the Golden State has already fought 1,300 more fires than in 2014.
Capital Public Radio reported that “more than 100,000 men and women, and 40 percent of them are inmates in the California Department of Corrections’ Conservation Camp” helped battle the flames.
CDCR’s mission is basically to produce trained, able-bodied workers for public works. The inmates are usually deployed to help in emergency situations and public works. Depending on the assigned task, each of them gets to earn $1.45–$3.90 a day. Because of that, the state of California proudly says that they save up to $80 million annually.
In the battle against wildfires, California isn’t alone in using its inmates. The New York Times reported that prison crews were among the most dependable sources of manpower since the 1980s.
Since inmates are paid a certain amount of the wage charged by private companies and federal agencies, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and California boast bigger savings to taxpayers.
Overall, the program seems to be a huge success. Not only do prisoners get trained and have a sense of accomplishment, taxpayers also save money.
But there is an ongoing legal battle in California concerning the court order that aims to reduce overcrowding in prisons.
Last 2009, the US Supreme Court said that overcrowded California state prisons breached federal guidelines against unusual and cruel punishment. In the following years, the state tried to alleviate the problem. Sad to say, they failed to meet the prison population standards, driving them to convince the court for another extension on the previously ordered deadlines.
In a report by the San Francisco Chronicle, the massive population reduction can only be achieved by transferring the prisoners from state to county prisons or through the expansion of parole for the nonviolent, elderly, and the sick offenders.
The Los Angeles Times also reported that even though California was able to meet periodic benchmarks, “it failed to implement the parole system for nonviolent second-strike offenders.” Aside from that, it wasn’t able to implement “earned sentence-reduction programs” for minimum-security prisoners.
Nevertheless, the people of California seem to have varying opinion about this matter. While the lawyers under California’s Attorney General said that the state will end up losing an important labor pool if these programs were implemented, the lawyers of the prisoners believe that the CDRC must hire more employees rather than delaying the implementation.
Amanda Chicago Lewis of BuzzFeed News did a series of interviews with an inmate found guilty of dealing crack, Demetrius Barr. He said he was given a chance to serve only 35 percent of his seven-year sentence if he could survive the rigorous work required of the CDRC participants.
He also added that even if the years he spent in the program were physically tiring, it was emotionally rewarding. But still, at the end of the day, he said, “Pshh, this might be beyond slavery . . . They don’t have a whip. That’s the difference.”
In addition, he noted that being a part of CDCR’s program was much better compared to being in prison. He stated, “You feel like you’re doing something, other than just sitting in jail. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.”