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In California, certain categories of prison inmates are able to earn very small amounts of money and credits toward early release by working for government agencies or private companies, either inside or outside the walls of the institution.
One of the main ways the state’s prisoners are put to work is as firefighters, combating the state’s notorious wildfires. The inmates ─ around 4000 of them ─ are able to be in a somewhat less confined environment in a camp situation, rather than being behind actual bars, and to earn a bit of money to use upon their eventual release. Fighting wildfires is an extremely dangerous job. Inmates can face massive fires, with scorching flames towering as high as 100 feet, and there have been fatalities in the past. Firefighters risk smoke inhalation, burn injuries, danger from falling trees, and death. The inmates earn a dollar an hour when they are actually engaged in fighting a fire, and $1.45 to $3.90 per day while in training.
Another example of a dangerous inmate work program is electronics recycling. At the Solano State Prison in Vacaville, California, and three other state penitentiaries, prisoners are put to work recycling donated computers. Where this type of work takes place, toxic chemicals, including lead, cadmium, chromium, and beryllium, seep onto floors and create dust that pollutes the air, causing illness in the workers (and prison staff as well!)
So, the question arises, are inmates who work at these and other jobs while serving a sentence in federal and state prisons entitled to workers’ compensation benefits if they are injured, or death benefits if they die as a result of the work being performed during their incarceration? While not the case in all states, in California, the answer is yes.
California’s Workers’ Compensation law gives inmates the right to receive benefits for injuries and illnesses related to the performance of their jobs that are part of a prison work program, as long as the injury meets the basic requirements of any California workers’ compensation claim:
Section 3370.1 of California’s labor code not only entitles the injured inmate to benefits, it also allows certain surviving family members to claim monetary compensation for a worker who was killed on the job while serving time in prison.
In the outside world, permanent disability benefits are based on the claimant’s actual earnings, along with the type and severity of the disability. Since prisoners are paid almost nothing for the work they do, a different method has to be applied, which in this case is the inmate’s projected future earning capacity.
Benefits are not paid to the inmate during the incarceration but are payable upon release, when the sentence has been satisfied. This can give an ex-offender some funds to fall back during the often difficult period of reintegrating into the community after serving time in prison. And when anyone, be it a prisoner or any other laborer, puts his or her health on the line on the job, it is only fair and just that any injury or illness that results if compensated. Fortunately, the California legislature is more enlightened than some other states in this regard and provides much-needed protection for inmates who perform dangerous work.