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Oregon Department of Forestry

Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency yesterday, citing an “imminent threat of wildfire across Oregon” in a press release.

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"The wildfire season has escalated in Oregon this summer, and fire crews are working in extreme temperatures to keep homes and resources safe during this pandemic," Brown continued. "Given drought conditions and hotter than usual temperatures, Oregonians should be prepared for an intense wildfire season this summer.”

Among the crews fighting back wildfires in Oregon are state prison inmates. They earn $9.80 a day for their work.

The Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) has provided inmate fire crews to the Oregon Department of Forestry since 1951. Incarcerated people from eight different prisons across the state—all low-level offenders—are deployed to work alongside regional fire crews when needed. Currently, DOC has 345 adults in custody (DOC call them AICs) who could be deployed to fight a fire. So far in 2020, fire crews consisting of nine or 10 incarcerated adults have been deployed 25 times.

Participation is voluntary, and the program has been praised as an opportunity to earn valuable job skills inmates can use to earn a living after they are released from prison. But while they are incarcerated, inmate firefighters make well below a living wage. They are compensated two different ways—through money and points, according to DOC spokesperson Jennifer Black.

“The money portion is straight forward,” Black wrote in an email to the Mercury. “AICs receive $6 each day they are on a fire. $3 of the $6 is deposited into the AIC’s release savings account and the other half into their spending account.”

Incarcerated firefighters earn additional compensation through a DOC point-based system called the Performance Recognition Awards System. Points are converted to money at the end of each month. Black said the point-to-money conversion is complicated, but typically firefighters who worked consistently for 22 days earn an additional $3.80 per day.

That pencils out to $9.80 a day for incarcerated firefighters.

The base minimum wage for workers in Oregon is $11.25 for hour, but prisons are not required to comply with minimum wage laws for inmates. The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution outlawed slave labor with an exception for people being punished for a crime—and Oregon voters passed Ballot Measure 17, requiring prison inmates to work full-time, in 1994. The measure did not require fair wages for inmates’ labor.

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Many Oregon towns and counties have crews of volunteer firefighters who aren’t incarcerated—but those volunteers are often paid per shift, and enjoy state protections that keep them from being fired from their full-time jobs when deployed to a fire.

California also uses prison labor to fight fires. As intense wildfires ravage the state, California is suffering from a decreased firefighting force because of COVID-19 outbreaks in state prisons. In Oregon, Black said DOC is refraining from deploying inmate firefighters from prisons where there are active cases of COVID-19 that originated in the prison, such as at Snake River Correctional Institution.

The tradeoff: Inmates at prisons without active cases are heading into what some experts warn could be the worst wildfire season Oregon’s had in years.

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