Australian officials ‘considering using prisoners’ to fight wildfires

Inmate crews will also ‘go into areas ravaged by bushfire and undertake critical clean-up and maintenance work’

Zoe Tidman
Friday 10 January 2020 16:35 GMT
Australia's wildfire smoke reaches as far as Argentina

Prisoners could be trained to fight blazes in one of the Australian regions worst hit by wildfires, authorities say.

New South Wales “is exploring options to establish inmate firefighting teams at a number of minimum-security correctional centres,” a local prison service spokesperson told The Independent.

They said inmates will have to meet conditions relating to offence history, security classification and release date to take part.

NGO Penal Reform International said it encourages rehabilitation programmes that help people “move away from offending behaviours” and “make a meaningful contribution to the local community”.

“Training people serving prison sentences to fight bushfires certainly fits this profile,” said Jane Rice, who leads the NGO’s work on prisons and natural disasters. However, she said, this work must be “entirely voluntary” and “sufficiently compensated”.

Prisoners have been taking part in other community projects, such as helping to rebuild a dingo shelter destroyed in the region’s fires, according to the New South Wales Department of Justice.

“We just don’t have the resources so it’s been fantastic to have extra hands to help with the clean-up,” the sanctuary founder Luci Ellem said. “The correctional staff and inmates have worked really hard and I can’t thank them enough.”

A Corrective Services NSW spokesperson said prisoners are expected to help with other rebuilding projects across the year.

Regional prison authorities are also working towards organising crews of inmates “to go into areas ravaged by bushfire and undertake critical clean-up and maintenance work”.

New South Wales has been one of the worst-hit regions during Australia’s most devastating wildfire season on record.

Prisoners have helped tackle blazes throughout the years in California.

Campaigners called the system open to “exploitation and abuse”, as inmates in the US state were paid $1 (77p) an hour for firefighting services during the deadly 2018 wildfires.

Californian prison authorities said inmates received the same amount of training as seasonal firefighters and could learn useful skills through the scheme.

Ms Rice from Penal Reform International said in California, inmates trained as firefighters “are not eligible to get regular jobs with fire departments because of their criminal record” on leaving prison.

“Persons trained in these skills [in rehabilitation programmes] ought to be able to use these in jobs after they are released from prison,” she said.

Firefighters – many of whom are volunteers – have been working since September to tackle Australia’s blazes, which have killed 27 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

Additional reporting by agencies

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