In California, up to three quarters of the crew members fighting California fires are prisoners. In exchange for a reduction in sentence length, 4,100 minimum security prisoners work fighting fires and on public works projects for a $1 or less an hour.Prisoners contributed 3.1 million hours fighting fires in California last year, earning only $1 an hour. By contrast, the average forest fire fighter in the U.S. earns $17.19 an hour, or $35,760 a year. Prisoners working on public works projects earn even less, $40 a month. Using prisoner labor saves the state of California $200 million a year, $80 million in salary and $120 million in employee benefits and security costs. With almost one-third of minimum security prisoners moved from behind razor wire and onto the fire-lines, corrections costs are therefore lower.
The program is not limited just to adult prisoners. Last year the California Youth Authority contributed 684,000 slave-hours to firefighting, saving the state $3.9 million. Of course, it does not appear any of the savings were redirected into college scholarships for previously incarcerated youths.