Before the coronavirus pandemic, inmate firefighters accounted for 30% of those battling California's forest fires. Until recently however, it was almost impossible for them to pursue a career in firefighting after being released.
What You Need To Know
- Before the COVID pandemic, inmate firefighters accounted for 30% of those battling California’s forest fires
- But until recently, it was almost impossible for them to pursue a career in firefighting after being released
- Recently, Governor Newson signed AB 2147, a bill that will allow inmate firefighters to pursue a professional career in firefighting after their release
- To qualify for the fire camp program, prisoners must have a nonviolent offense
In their special report, the LA Times looks at inmates' battle on the fire lines and long after the fires are out.
There's been a long history of inmates used for manual labor, whether it be agriculture in the south or building railroads in the 1800s. There has been a long history of fire camps in Southern California.
"Fire camps in California, also called conservation camps, have been going on for decades now. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation runs them, so they are very much a part of the state prison system. And, they have really become a part of the state's strategy for fighting wildfires. That's something we really depend on now," said LA Times video journalist Claire Collins.
Inmates receive some benefits from volunteering for fire services in California.
"There are a number of advantages; one of the most notable ones is a time reduction. Every one day that a participant is in fire camp, they get two days off their sentence. They are paid a dollar an hour when they are actively fighting a fire and a dollar a day, when they are not, which is significantly less than a professional firefighter is going to make doing similar work. It is also a lot more than what they make doing any other job while in prison," added Collins.
However, volunteering at a fire camp also comes with a risk to inmates.
"It is a potentially life-threatening thing that people in fire camp are asked to do. So, there are a lot of critics of the program itself who say even though it is a volunteer program; these are people — because they are incarcerated — have very few options, certainly a lot fewer than someone who is an average civilian signing up to be a firefighter full-time. There are people who have ethical concerns about that," said Collins.
Recently, Governor Gavin Newson signed AB 2147, a bill that will allow inmate firefighters to pursue a professional career in firefighting after their release.
"One of the big motivations in signing this bill is because we're in a year of historic wildfires. Wildfires are getting bigger and bigger. We frankly need more resources to fight them, so we have this population of people who have training from the state to fight wildfires that they got while in prison, but once released, there are so many barriers that prevent them from pursuing it full-time. So, the intention of this bill was to ease that pathway a little bit by giving them an opportunity to have their records expunged so they can get their EMT license and become full-time firefighters," added Collins.
The prisoners that are already at the fire camps are not violent criminals.
"To qualify for the fire camp program, you have to have a non-violent offense and can't have a sex-related offense or arson. So, there are a number of things that prevent people from getting into the program who have sentences like that," said Collins.
Collins plans to keep in touch with some of the former inmate firefighters she met while producing this story.
"Kevin and Ruth were the two main characters for this piece, and they're both at the beginning of their journey trying to become full-time firefighters. I am planning to go back out and follow them through that journey," added Collins.