LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
More than 9,000 firefighters from across the country are battling California's deadliest and most destructive fire on record. About 1,500 of these firefighters are actually inmates from the state's prisons. Since the 1940s, California has relied on prison labor to help fight its forest fires. They're generally paid about 2 bucks a day. When they're actually battling flames, their pay takes up to an additional dollar an hour. Their shifts can run long. The conditions are dangerous.
Since 1983, six inmates have been killed on the frontlines of firefighting. On top of a wage, the program offers other perks for risking their lives. Inmate sentences are reduced, and they're able to live in much more comfortable accommodations.
Daniel Erickson was in prison in California for drug possession and spent five years as an inmate firefighter. He now works to install redwood fences. And he joins us now from the studios of YR Media in Oakland, Calif. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Erickson.
DANIEL ERICKSON: Thank you for having me.
SINGH: So you agreed to do all this because they told you that you'd get some benefits. So what were some of the benefits to you, beginning with your reduction in sentence?
ERICKSON: My first time at fire camp, they knocked a year off my sentence. So that, alone, was well worth it for me. You're doing much harder work at fire camp, but you're out. You're not behind the wall. You're not dealing with all the tension and drama that could happen in just about every prison in the state of California. And it's definitely the hardest work I've ever done in my life, but it was worth it for me.
SINGH: All right. Well, give me an idea of what your first fire was like.
ERICKSON: My first fire was at Rumsey Canyon in Clear Lake, which is one of the most dangerous territories for firefighting due to the topography. I jumped off the prison bus to get my pack on and get weighed and get right on a helicopter and fly up to the top of this mountain, where there was a pretty big fire. And, again, it's the very, very bad territory. And there were boulders the size of Volkswagens roll down the hills, you know? And you just feel the ground shake.
SINGH: OK. So this is your first experience. You're facing this down. And were there any thoughts at that moment? I really wish I could just take this back and go back in the helicopter and go back to the prison.
ERICKSON: So I've never felt like, I can't believe I got myself into this. What was I thinking? It was more gratifying that I could be sitting behind the wall right now, dealing with all the drama that that, you know, entails, or I could be out here, helping save this part of California because of this disaster. Was I scared at times? Yes. But I've been scared in the regular prison setting more so than on the fire line.
SINGH: Well, Mr. Erickson, let me ask you this. Did you ever lose any friends in the line of duty?
ERICKSON: Yes. I - so, as a trainer, my job was to help the captains get these guys through the training. And there was a couple young men that went off to other camps. And then, I later learned through a green sheet - it's, basically, information collected by Cal Fire of the accident, what happened, if it was a fatality or an injury. And I ran across a couple of those sheets that had some names on it that I remembered in my class. One of them was on the hand crew.
You have two chainsaw operators and two guys that are called pullers. They pull all the brush and debris away from the chainsaw so they can continue their cuts. And the puller got up on a rock, and he slipped off the rock. And the top of the chainsaw bar hit his groin, and he was treated for the cut. And then, later, in the hospital, he didn't make it because of blood loss.
SINGH: And these were your friends?
ERICKSON: They were people I trained. It's more, I'd say, like - kind of like family.
SINGH: So how did you feel when you first saw these fatalities?
ERICKSON: It was very hard for me. All camps had their flags flown at half-staff, you know? A lot of times, when an inmate was hurt back in the day, they didn't mention that an inmate firefighter was killed. Now, they say three firefighters were killed. They didn't say it was an inmate firefighter. They said he was a firefighter because that's what he was.
SINGH: Well, some people say that the state of California, which reportedly is saving all this money - tens of millions of dollars - by utilizing prison labor to fight its fires that it actually amounts to slave labor. Do you agree with this?
ERICKSON: Well, I think that it's very hard work. So you get a guy that's running the streets, doing whatever he's doing, never had a job in his life. He gets out there, and he starts throwing around some big rounds of wood and having to work fast so the fire doesn't cross the line. And you've got 106-degree weather. It's hard work. But slave labor? I don't know if I would say slave labor.
I would say I think that the prison inmates are underpaid. This is very, very hard work. And, at times, I felt like just - I'm done. I can't do no more. And that's when I would tell the captain, we - our guys are tired and if we don't want some mistakes and some injuries, we need to lay it down for a minute, you know? And then, we would lay down, and we would rest.
SINGH: Looking at the major fires raging in California, knowing the folks who are on the frontlines and that the crew includes firefighters in prison, do you sense that they still don't get the respect that you feel they deserve?
ERICKSON: I do, and I don't. So I have, right now, a newspaper article, thanking the inmate firefighters because if it wasn't for the inmate firefighters - this court of about 15 houses would not be standing if it wasn't for the two crews that went in there and saved their neighborhood. So that was very nice to see in the center of the newspaper and residents sending thank-you cards because of a crew of inmates that - their neighborhoods and houses still stood. You did that. You are the reason why those houses stood, still.
SINGH: That's Daniel Erickson. He was a firefighter while an inmate at California Correctional Center in Susanville. Mr. Erickson, thank you so much for your time.
ERICKSON: Thank you.
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