On the front lines of some of the deadliest fires raging in California, professional firefighters are working alongside prison inmates with one key difference: pay.

Cal Fire firefighters make at least $10.50 an hour, according to the agency, and inmates make only $2 a day plus $1 an hour.

All the attention on the wildfires over the past two weeks has begun to draw attention to a prison program in California that, according to state corrections spokesman Bill Sessa, can reduce state firefighting costs up to $100 million a year.

The number of inmates fighting fires varies but with 19 fires burning simultaneously at one point, KQED reported that there are about 3,800 state prison inmates who are minimum-custody inmates deemed a low safety risk fighting fires. That’s about 7 percent of the 9,500 firefighters working those fires.


Former Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who is now running for lieutenant governor, has been the biggest critic of the inmate program wages.

“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,” McLaughlin says on her campaign website.

Others on social media have shared similar critical reactions:

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