California Passes Law to Help Inmate Firefighters Pursue Professional Careers in the Field

Inmate firefighters march past an American flag, while led by a fire captain, as they work to put out hot spots from the Tick Fire on October 25, 2019 in Canyon Country, California.
Inmate firefighters march past an American flag, while led by a fire captain, as they work to put out hot spots from the Tick Fire on October 25, 2019 in Canyon Country, California.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

Amid the flames ravaging the state, California on Friday finally took a step to recognize the important contributions made by incarcerated firefighters over the years. A new law removes barriers that block inmates from pursuing professional firefighting careers after completing their sentences, giving them a second chance at life after prison.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 2147 on Friday at the site of the North Complex Fire, which has burned more than 252,000 acres and is currently 21% contained, according to Cal Fire. AB 2147 allows inmates that have participated in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s fire camps to have their criminal records expunged. This would allow them to pursue an EMT certification, which municipal firefighting departments require for employment.

On Twitter, Newsom said that California’s inmate firefighting program was decades old and has long needed reform, adding that former prisoners should not be denied the right to become professional firefighters in the future.

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“This legislation rights a historic wrong and recognizes the sacrifice of thousands of incarcerated people who have helped battle wildfires in our state, and I would like to thank the Legislature for passing this bill,” Newsom said in a statement.

Eloise Gomez Reyes, the assembly member who wrote the bill, said in a statement that the law was about giving second chances.

“Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism,” Gomez Reyes stated. “We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around.”

Former inmates will have to file a petition in county court to have their records expunged. The court also has the authority to wave their probation, parole or supervised release.

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Inmates convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping, any felony punishable by death or a life sentence, sex offenses or arson, among others, would not qualify for relief under this law. Nonetheless, inmates convicted of certain crimes are not even eligible to participate in the state’s fire camps.

The state has 43 fire camps in 27 counties. In normal times, it counts on about 2,200 incarcerated people to work the fire-line. However, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, those numbers are likely lower at the moment. California has been expediting the release of non-violent offenders to protect their health during the crisis. It has released at least 331 inmate firefighters since July in both standard and expedited release processes.

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Although this law is undoubtedly good for former inmates who want to pursue a firefighting career, we shouldn’t forget what inmate firefighters have to deal with while they’re in the program. They make a jaw-dropping $5.12 a day wage, with an additional $1 an hour when they work the fire-line, to risk their lives fighting wildfires for the state.

Now, sure, this law will make it easier for some inmates to find jobs once they’re out of prison. However, it’s important that the people who are risking their lives to help the state be treated decently while they’re doing so—not just once they’ve been released—and that begins by giving inmates a decent wage.

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DISCUSSION

actualrootwyrm
Spamfeller Loves Nazi Clicks

This is the most meaningless gesture of meaningless gestures.

Know what every kid wants to be when they grow up? A firefighter. Know how competitive the job market for firefighters is? Ridiculously so. (Less than 1.5% unemployment.) Know how prepared these actual firefighters will be to compete with others for those jobs? They can’t even apply.

Oh, sure, now they legally can apply. Do they have their high school diploma? That’s the first requirement. Physical fitness exam? They can get through it, though some technical areas might cause hiccups. Now do they have EMT training? That’s a prerequisite at many departments to be a firefighter. Most applicants have that training. Which puts them ahead of guys who fought actual fires objectively. How about an actual firefighter training program or degree? Again, most applicants will have gone to firefighter boot camps or similar. And they’ll get trounced by the guy who has a degree in something fire safety or public safety related. They can rightfully claim to have real experience fighting wildfires, but the guys who went through boot camp? They got trained on heavy equipment that the penal crews aren’t allowed to touch.

And the real cruelty of this is: these are purely objective qualifiers. I’m deliberately ignoring race, gender, and everything else. When you look at nothing but objective measures and limit them to job relevant ones? When Salinas, California’s fire department posted 25 openings in 2005, they received more than 1,000 applications. When you’ve got that many applications? Step one, weed out anyone without EMT training. And you’ve just eliminated everyone from this ‘new’ pool.

“But this bill says now they can get EMT certification!” Okay, and how are they going to pay for it? You don’t just “get an EMT certification.” You have to first take approved courses before you can even sit the exam. Those courses in California? Cost more than $2,500 at private providers. And it’s pay-up-front, no financial aid available. Then it’s another $150-200 to take the test.

Do you think the guy that got early release for good behavior and fire service has $2,700 in cash just laying around? Fuck no. Because he’s probably going to be paroled, not released. So he owes $5-12 per day for GPS monitoring, $200 a month for ‘supervision fees,’ $75 cash up front just to get out, up to $1500 in ‘court mandated reports,’ and if they want to move counties that’ll be another $500 - cash, no checks, no credit cards. That’s assuming they don’t also owe tens of thousands in restitution - and the court gets the first bite of any money they have or earn. Oh, and getting your record expunged isn’t free either - you’ll be paying court costs of $435 up front, plus you’ll be spending over $1500 on an attorney, and that’s assuming you don’t have to appeal.

This isn’t even a half-measure. It’s just self-serving performative bullshit. These folks will still have the exact same chances of a job on the outside: between jack and shit. Especially obvious since the fix is so goddamn simple: just harmonize the fucking requirements.

Fire departments are already approved to do EMT training, they just don’t offer it to the public. If they were serious about fixing this? Make the requirements the same. High school diploma or GED (prison already has a GED program,) must participate in EMT training prior to each fire season, and must pass a non-certifying EMT test administered by a fire department. And poof, just like that, they’re more valuable on the line and immediately employable after prison. The day of release, you get a certificate saying you’ve completed state accredited EMT training dated the last time you passed the test - which means you can just go take the test.

But it’s not about that. It’s about PR and optics and doing anything they can to preserve the ‘workforce’ without allowing them to be anything but slaves or reducing the chances they’ll be able to re-incarcerate that ‘valuable worker’ down the line.