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California inmates fight wildfires for a buck an hour

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A search and rescue team searches for bodies at a property where a person was reported missing in Santa Rosa, California on October 12, 2017. Hundreds of people are still missing in massive wildfires which have swept through California killing at least 26 people and damaging thousands of homes, businesses and other buildings. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON

Fresh out of prison, Alejandro Rangel longs to keep doing the job he did as an inmate for one dollar an hour: fight forest fires.

For more than two years, he worked with one of some 200 crews of inmate-firefighters who in summer and fall spend more time battling blazes in the forests of California than sitting behind bars.

This week, for instance, 553 inmates were sent to help take on the blazes ravaging the wine country north of San Francisco.

In prison, these people are prisoners. But outside they are like any other firefighter: no handcuffs, no chains, and no guards to watch over them.

Perhaps the only thing that makes them stand out is an orange jumpsuit with the word “inmate” stamped on one of the pant legs.

Oh, yes, and then there are the paltry wages they earn.

For risking their lives fighting raging infernos, they earn a dollar an hour, compared to the minimum of $17.70 per hour that a professional makes.

Their main job is to keep fires from spreading. They cut down trees and dig ditches around fires so as to contain them.

Rangel, 25, dreams of being a chainsaw operator.

“But I’d do any duty, whatever it is. I would join anywhere in California,” Rangel said during a training exercise at Oak Glen Camp, a minimum security prison in Yucaipa, about 140 kilometers (80 miles) east of Los Angeles.

Team work, discipline and rehabilitation were mantras that inmates who spoke to AFP repeated over and over as a prison guard looked on.

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.

But the inmates insist they do not feel taken advantage of by working so hard for so little pay, which is actually the highest wage a California prisoner can earn.

The state saves an estimated $124 million a year with this program, which has existed since 1946. Two prisoners died this year while fighting fires.

Alejandro earned $1,200 this year.

“It’s hard work, a little bit of money. But it helps build you,” he said.

‘My mother is proud’
The program is strictly voluntary and open to low-risk inmates convicted of non-violent crimes.

Most of those taking part are young men in prison for drug offenses or robbery, few of whom like to talk about their past.

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 spent the last two of those years at Oak Glen, which does not look like a regular prison.

There are no prison cells. It has a garden area with trees, and there is plenty of fresh air. It even boasts a gym with weightlifting equipment. Many inmates said their life there is not all that bad.

Being a fireman, said Rangel, who is of Mexican descent, changed his life. He said he had never worked so hard.

“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.

The vehicle the inmates travel in has no ladder or fire hose. It is a red bus with bars on the windows. The driver is a professional firefighter and he is separated from the crew.

During the fire season these crews practically live in the bus.

From Yucaipa they travel all over California helping the pros fight fires. Last year Rangel’s team logged 16,000 kilometers.

Derrick Lovell, 25, has six months left to spend at Oak Glen and, like Rangel, he wants to fight forest fires professionally.

“My mom is proud. She said ‘I always knew you’d become a fireman, even if it is the hard way,'” Lovell said.

“This is the first time in a long time my family is proud of me,” said a smiling Travis Reeder, 23. He was imprisoned after being convicted of drug dealing.

On his second day as a firefighter, he fainted from dehydration. But he wants to go pro, too.


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