Since March, California’s prison population has faced the threat of COVID-19, a disease spreading quickly among those living in close quarters. Now, there is an additional potentially deadly menace.
As raging wildfires spread throughout the state, those outside the prison system in affected areas have been ordered to evacuate. That is not the case with inmates, especially those in the Vacaville region not, far from San Francisco.
Breathing in Fire and Smoke
The wildfires have created heavy smoke and ash falling like snow. Inmates in the fire’s wake are breathing in fire and smoke while waiting to see if evacuation occurs.
Of course, for anyone exposed to Coronavirus, the strain on the lungs from trying to breathe may only exacerbate the virus’ effects and lead to more fatalities. So far, 12,000 inmates and prison staff have contracted coronavirus in the California prison system.
In the Vacaville area, the California Medical Facility (“CMF”), which cares for terminally ill inmates and those with serious medical issues has not been evacuated. Neither has the nearby Solano state prison.
In Los Angeles, the Lancaster state prison is in the path of a growing fire, and this facility is already dealing with a large caseload of Covid-19 among inmates.
No Inmates Fighting Fires
Ironically, the state has long depended on incarcerated people to help in fighting its frequent wildfires. It was back in the 1940s that the practice started. Now, in one of the worst fire seasons in recent years, it is without these firefighters due to coronavirus outbreaks at prisons. The firefighters are paid a meager wage but can earn time off their sentences.
Some inmate firefighters were sent home earlier in the year to lessen coronavirus spread in overcrowded prisons. Some of the inmate firefighting crews were under coronavirus quarantine, and others were battling Covid-19.
The bottom line is that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has only half the number of inmate firefighting crews that it usually depends on during this critical time. Generally, there are 192 inmate firefighting crews available to battle wildfires.
Due to coronavirus, there are now just 90 such crews. The pandemic has reduced local budgets, meaning there are fewer paid firefighters on hand as well.
Governor Gavin Newsom said at a news conference that inmate crews do some of the most important and toughest work on the front lines of the fires.
Perfect Conditions for the Virus
Prisons and nursing homes have borne the brunt of coronavirus infections in the U.S. They are not the only overcrowded facilities ripe for viral spread. Those firefighters working on the front line, whether inmate or non-inmate crews, also inhabit perfect conditions for spreading coronavirus.
According to CNBC, the crews work, as well as rest, in conditions that are “hotbeds” for spreading the virus. The crowded campgrounds set up for fire crews leave no room for social distancing. There is little difference in the ability to socially distance prison crews -- whether behind bars or in a firefighter campground.
For any of the firefighters, all it takes is one positive coronavirus test to quarantine the entire crew. Meanwhile, those still in prison smell the acrid air and breathe in smoke, wondering if the state will evacuate them as conditions worsen.