By Ryan Velez
The California wildfires are costing millions in damage and taking human lives. It is also opening up a conversation about us, the environment, and if what we are doing is accelerating the issue. However, there is another human toll that many aren’t paying attention to that Yahoo News is shedding a light on. This is the inmate crews of firefighters who are risking their lives for a paltry dollar an hour.
Alejandro Rangel is one such example of a person who started behind bars, but wants to carry on his work now that he is out of prison. For two years, he worked with 200 crews of inmate-firefighters who in summer and fall spend more time battling blazes in the forests of California than sitting behind bars. To put things in perspective, 553 inmates went to Northern California this week to take on the blazes north of San Francisco. However, this wage is far less than the minimum of $17.70 per hour that a professional makes.
Gayle McLaughlin, a politician who wants to run for lieutenant governor of California, has condemned the inmate-firefighter program as cruel exploitation. "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," she said. Not everyone sees it this way, or at least, not as an issue on its own. The $1 an hour is actually the maximum an inmate can earn in California. Existing since 1946, the state saves an estimated $124 million a year with this program. Two prisoners died this year while fighting fires.
Rangel, who brought in $1,200, puts a positive spin on it. "It's hard work, a little bit of money. But it helps build you," he said. This program is strictly voluntary, and is open only to low-risk inmates convicted of non-violent crimes. Rangel was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of robbing a home in his hometown of San Fernando, near Los Angeles. He credits the program with changing his life.
When I came in, I had no experience at all in anything," he said.
"I enjoyed doing it, enjoyed working, helping others. Hopefully I will pursue my career," he added. Derrick Lovell, another inmate, has six months left on his sentence, and also has aspirations to become a professional firefighter.
"My mom is proud. She said 'I always knew you'd become a fireman, even if it is the hard way,'" Lovell said.