Chainsaws tore through pine tree trunks and axes chipped through branches as the chatter of a yellow-shirted crew broke through the brisk fall air Tuesday morning near Dome Rock State Wildlife Area central Teller County.
The group of perhaps two dozen men said they might soon stop protecting aspen groves and clearing dead or dying trees west of Pikes Peak and head north to fight the Kruger Rock fire, which broke out that morning near Estes Park. All in a day’s work. All before they inevitably head back to their bunks in prison.
Such is the life of inmates working in Colorado’s State Wildland Inmate Fire Team — SWIFT — which will soon nearly double in size thanks to a one-time, $700 million stimulus package and the legislation that followed. They’ll also make more money. But even with the recent raises, inmate supervisors, called “red hats” still make minimum wage of $12.33 an hour. The rest make $40 a day for their first season, about triple their previous pay.
“Good jobs in prison are slim and this is the best one,” inmate and crew member Kevin Payton told The Denver Post. “And it’s an opportunity to do something truly meaningful with your time.”
But that pay amounts to modern-day slavery, Kamau Allen, lead organizer for the Abolish Slavery National Network, said. And it’s legal because the 13th Amendment bans the practice “except as punishment for crime.”
“Even if the incentives are just a little bit better than other forms of labor and methods of payment in prison,” Allen said. “It is still slavery.”
The threat of wildfires — or even “mega fires” — increases year after year, Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said. So SWIFT crews are “critically important right now.”
Gibbs, a former wildfire fighter, donned a hard hat and thick yellow work shirt Tuesday morning and swung his ax alongside crew members. Expanding the program will allow the state to protect even more lives, homes and infrastructure.
Realistically, it’s a drop in the bucket, however. The 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan notes that about 2.4 million acres of forest are “in urgent need of treatment to address forest health, wildfire risk and watershed protection threats.” That work would cost an estimated $4.2 billion and even with its recently expanded budget, the SWIFT program only has a few million.
Still, Gibbs praised the crews and said he supports giving inmates the “pay they deserve.”
For context, Gibbs said a normal wildfire mitigation worker would start work at a salary of between $45,000 and $50,000 a year.
If SWIFT crews are so important, Allen said, the state should pay them fairly.
The debate extends well beyond Colorado. The use of prison labor to fight wildfires is perhaps most prominent in California where before the pandemic, inmates amounted to about one-third of the state’s firefighting force and were only paid $3 to $7 a day on a fire line, The Atlantic reported.
Dean Williams, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, said he does want to pay SWIFT crews even more than the raises will give them.
“It’s still not done, but it’s a start,” Williams said.
The extra money for raises comes from a $17 million chunk carved out of the state’s $700 million stimulus package meant to help the economy rebound from the pandemic. It will also allow state officials to expand SWIFT crews from about 95 people to 160, Williams said.
Not only is the low pay unfair but it’s also indicative of a bigger problem in Colorado, according to Wanda Bertram, spokeswoman for the criminal justice think tank Prison Policy Initiative.
“It’s a state that is desperately in need of assistance for fighting fires turning to a labor force that is captive, deeply in need of money and more pliable,” Bertram said.
Working on a SWIFT crew is voluntary and hundreds apply annually because for each day in the field, their sentence is cut by a day.
But Bertram questioned whether the work is really optional because inmates need money for extras like phone calls, paper and toiletries, leaving work as their only solution. The moral solution would be to pay inmates fair wages for their work, she said. And do more to help them find jobs once they’re released from prison.
In its nearly 20 years of existence about 50 inmates who worked with SWIFT crews have reported back that they found a job with a fire department, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Annie Skinner said.
“What I’d like is 50 every year,” Williams said. “The need is there.”
He added that he’d like to expand the candidate base for the program, which is currently “conservatively” limited to men with nonviolent offenses. Allowing women to join crews and other inmates would provide even more convicts the opportunity to make some money and learn a new skill set that could help them once they’re released.
In addition, a law passed this year aims to improve felons’ chances of finding a job as firefighters after their release, but it only encourages the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control to give hiring preference to the formerly incarcerated with firefighting experience. Individual city and county departments still decide whether they want to hire felons and state law prevents most convicts from receiving EMT certifications, effectively disqualifying them from working in many urban departments.
All the moral and financial debate couldn’t be heard on the ground in Teller County, however. There, red hat Kevin Payton — who said he was convicted of “financial crimes” in 2019 — had no complaints.
“Look at this,” Payton said, gesturing toward the ponderosa pines and aspens. He said he’s working the best job in prison, making more money than other inmates and now has an entirely new skillset.
“There’s a real art to dropping trees safely… when you fell a difficult tree there’s satisfaction in that,” Payton said. “And any day outside of prison is a win, outside the monotony of three hots (meals) and a cot.”
Other crew members nodded in agreement and about half raised their hands when asked whether they’d pursue a job as a firefighter outside of prison.
The money is something to call their own, Joey Glassner said. It’s a little something to send home and maybe even buy the kids a Christmas present, Daniel Swilling agreed.
For Payton’s 6-year-old son, Hunter, it’s a source of pride.
“He said ‘You’re a firefighter, daddy, that’s awesome!’” Payton recalled. “It melted my heart to have him be so proud of something I was doing.”
Payton said he hopes to be released next summer and he’s confident he’ll be able to land a job with a fire department once he’s out.
“I’ve got good references,” he said.
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