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Battling California fires, inmates find a chance at better role

About 2,500 trained inmate firefighters are providing vital help in the wildfire crisis.

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The program saves California taxpayers more than $80 million annually on average, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

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The use of prison labor in the US has expanded with the growing ranks of inmates and a general loosening of the rules governing the practice, says Noah Zatz, a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles.

Critics of prison labor, he says, worry that it can take jobs from regular workers while not extending worker protections to the inmates. Few states pay inmates minimum wage, and only some – including California – provide workers comp. The legal justification for such exemptions, he says, grows weaker if the purpose is less rehabilitation than cost-savings.

The pay differential does grate on the inmate firefighters, who hear the regular crews talk of buying boats with their pay checks.

"But I can't be mad at anybody but myself," says inmate firefighter Floyd Smith. When a disability prevented his wife from working, Mr. Smith says that rather than scale back on extras like a platinum cable package, he dealt drugs.

Firefighting has helped him value other things, namely the support of his wife and others in the community. "To be able to come here and do something productive and help society, it gives you a feeling of self-fulfillment and accomplishment," says Smith, who hopes to counsel troubled teens upon release.

Others like Mr. Candido plan to parlay their firefighting skills into a career.

CDCR says roughly 3 to 5 percent of released inmate firefighters get jobs with CAL FIRE, the Forest Service, or private crews. CDCR doesn't know how many firefighter inmates wind up reoffending.

The last time Candido was paroled, he knew in his heart he'd be back.

"Society I thought was totally against me and didn't give me the opportunity or chance to make money legitimately," says Candido. In 33 days, he was picked up again on armed robbery charges.

Now the firefighting program has opened a career path and taught him life skills. The first: Follow the rules. As a rookie, he cranked up his chain saw without protective gear. An experienced sawyer noticed the mistake and slammed on the emergency brake just as the chain started to slice into Candido's leg.

"He took the saw away from me and gave me a lecture," says Candido. "I'm very grateful for that guy. He cared enough."

Now a veteran of 20 big fires, Candido says the experience showed him he could work hard. That's an understatement. His job places him at the front of a line of men who must clear a firebreak on terrain too tough for dozers.

Often the team follows the hot line to create a firebreak and hose access. That means a wall of flames – rising 20 feet high at times – rages just a yard or two away from the crew. Sweat pours "like Niagara Falls" under the suits, says Candido. Working farther from the fire, though, can mean shivering on a wind-swept ridge.

Such temperature extremes sent one inmate at the Basin Complex to a hospital. Many firefighters are also battling rashes from the poison oak that blankets Big Sur.

But there are moments of serenity, too: Candido saw his first ocean sunset here.