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'Modern Day Slavery': Prisoner Firefighters Risking Their Lives in California Battling Wildfires an Example of System's Injustice, Say Critics

"California fights fires with slave labor."

Firefighters from Stockton, Calif., put out flames off of Hidden Valley Rd. while fighting a wildfire, Friday, May 3, 2013 in Hidden Valley, California.

Firefighters from Stockton, Calif., put out flames off of Hidden Valley Rd. while fighting a wildfire, Friday, May 3, 2013 in Hidden Valley, California. (Photo: Daria Devyatkina/Flickr)

As wildfires tore up and down California over the past week, photos and video of prisoner firefighters battling the blaze for pennies drew outrage from observers who noted that as well as being paid practically nothing, inmates on the frontlines of the infernos can't even hope to continue the work after serving time due to harsh state law. 

"It's wrong," tweeted former secretary of Housing Julián Castro, who is running for president. "If you can save lives serving a sentence, you can save lives when you're released."

Castro pointed to a new bill in the California state legislature which would allow prisoners to fight fires after their release. The legislation, introduced in March by Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, would ask fire departments to allow applicants with criminal records a chance to fight fires as free people.

The treatment of prisoner firefighters angered a number of people who compared the practice to slavery. 

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"California fights fires with slave labor," tweeted another.

The cost-saving measures of using prison labor didn't escape immigration attorney Kevin Lo. 

"20% of firefighters on the front lines of California's blazes are detained folks," Lo said. "Paid $2 per day and $1 per hour when fighting fires, prison labor saves the state ~$100 million."

That economic benefit was cited by then-California Attorney General Kamal Harris' office as a reason to keep inmate labor on the fire frontlines in 2014. Harris, now a Democratic Senator, is running for president. 

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