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In California, a clash of ideals: Fighting fires and fixing the prison system

More than a third of the people on the fire lines in California come from state prison, an army of about 3,800 of people, including some women and teens.

Two large fires continue to scour Northern California, threatening a growing number of homes with fiery destruction. The massive natural disaster has sent thousands running toward the front lines in hopes of beating back the flames — but they’re not firefighters. 

They’re inmates. 

A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmate work crew walks through Sheep Ranch, Calif., on the way to battle a fire, Sept. 13, 2015. (Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmate work crew walks through Sheep Ranch, Calif., on the way to battle a fire, Sept. 13, 2015. 

More than a third of California’s manpower on the fire line is drawn from the state’s overcrowded prison system, an army of about 3,800 of people, including some women and teens. They make $2 a day, bumped up to $2 an hour while they're actually fighting fires — a wage that saves the state an estimated $80 million per year. 

But the success of the program is threatened by a troubling parallel development. There’s the state’s runaway need for firefighters as climate change turns fire season into a nearly year-round affair. And yet there’s also its desperate effort to reform sentencing, which has cut the number of low-level inmates by 40,000 since 2006, shrinking the pool of potential firefighters. 

So far, the state says that there’s been no drop in the number of inmate firefighters, and no shortage of manpower on the front lines. But the clash of two worthy goals — fighting fire and fixing the prison system — is already stirring anxiety, driving the state to search through county jails for potential firefighters and, at times, argue against the accelerated release of low level offenders. 

“We’re always concerned [about a shortage], but we have contingency plans,” Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told MSNBC. 

RELATED: California wildfires: Thousands flee as blazes force evacuations

One the most important safeguards is a series of contracts with county jails, home to a growing number of drug-related felons who used to be marked for state incarcerations. Right now about 200 firefighters are actually county inmates, recruited by the state for special service, Sessa said. 

The fire fighting effort is also helped by the fact that the prison system is still 35% above capacity, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. And as bad as that sounds, it’s just within the upper boundaries set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. As a result, the state’s prison population may have stabilized somewhat. 

The state tells MSNBC that decisions about prison reform are made independent of firefighting needs, but the twin demands have led to some morally awkward conversations. Late last year, for example, the state tried to squash a proposal that would expand the parole programs available to low-level inmates. It didn’t argue that the change would endanger the public or stunt the rehabilitation of the inmates. Instead, officials argued that the expanded programs would “severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

It even argued against expanding another lighter work program, known as MSF, fearing that such a move would “make fire camp beds even more difficult to fill, as low-level, non-violent inmates would choose to participate in the MSF program rather than endure strenuous physical activities and risk injury in fire camps.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris quickly saw the troubling implications of this argument. “The idea that we incarcerate people to have indentured servitude is one of the worst possible perceptions,” she told ThinkProgress. “I feel very strongly about that. It evokes images of chain gangs. I take it very seriously and I’m looking into exactly what needs to be done to correct it.” 

RELATED: California wildfire explodes to nearly 15,000 acres, evacuations ordered

The best case for the future of the fire program, however, may be the program itself. Most inmates working on the fire lines tend to rave to reporters, who can find them out in the field without guards or press officers to watch over a conversation. They don’t volunteer for prison, but those in the fire camps are all volunteers. It gets them outside, swinging axes, hammers and rakes to clear the forest ahead of the fire, thereby starving its forward progress.

The work is hot, sweaty, and dangerous. But it gives participants double the pay of a typical prison job, and for every day they work, they get an extra day off their sentence. Plus, they feel freer than they would in a prison yard, many report. They sleep in tents, and work under the direction of a professional firefighter, not a guard. And they’re surrounded by trees and sky — not razor-wire and cinder block. 

While inmates seem to like it on the whole, not all of them feel so positively. One inmate fire fighter compared it to slavery last year.

“You’re still counting down the days until you go home; it’s not like you want to stay there,” one inmate recently told the Marshall Project. “But fighting fires, man, that is so much safer than being in prison.”