Our prisons and justice system are a mess. I'm not a journalist, so I'm not going to lay out the justification for that assertion. Here are a couple of statistics to chew on from Wikipedia.
In September 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners.Corrections (which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
At the end of 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit organization for decarceration, estimated that in the United States, about 2,298,300 people were incarcerated out of a population of 324.2 million. This means that 0.7% of the population was behind bars. Of those who were incarcerated, about 1,316,000 people were in state prison, 615,000 in local jails, 225,000 in federal prisons, 48,000 in youth correctional facilities, 34,000 in immigration detention camps, 22,000 in involuntary commitment, 11,000 in territorial prisons, 2,500 in Indian Country jails, and 1,300 in United States military prisons.
$74 billion in 2007. We have private, for profit prisons. We benefit (in a twisted sense) from prison labor.
Let's consider California, which like most of the west has a problem with wildfires. This section from a 2019 L.A. Times article provides a good introduction.
California has about 3,700 inmates working at minimum security training facilities called “fire camps” throughout the state, 2,600 of whom are qualified to fight on the fire lines, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The inmate crews receive the same training as the state’s seasonal firefighters and do much of the same work, though their pay — between $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when they’re on a fire — is considerably less.
There's good and bad in this story.
Given our excessive incarceration rates and unfair justice system, a lot of those prisoner firefighters shouldn't be there. They're risking their lives for a few dollars per hour. Most of them will find it difficult to find work in that field upon release. The list goes on.
This issue highlights the potential for reform, and people are acting. Here is an excellent L.A. Times column from 31 August 2020 about pending legislation that would create a path for former prisoner firefighters to become firefighters. The author, Erika D. Smith, talks to two former prisoners who fought fires while in prison. You can't read the article and not root for them.
Column: California could soon end its dumb policy on inmate firefighters. What took so long? ~ Erika D. Smith
I'll finish this with a link to a The Marshall Project article that I thought was incredible. Same topic. Compelling stories, thorough reporting, and fantastic imagery.