During California’s 2020 wildfire crisis, the state exploited prison labor to meet a labor shortage in fire fighters. As VICE’s Motherboard reported in September 2020, even as California recruited fire crews from six other states and from Israel, Mexico, and Australia, the current labor shortage was “brought on by the state itself.” Though California’s reliance on low-paid incarcerated firefighters is “well documented,” after they are released from prison “institutional barriers” prevent them from becoming full-time professional firefighters.
As Motherboard reported, inmate firefighters typically make up between fifty to eight percent of personnel on wildfires across the state. But once firefighters have served their sentences, they face “enormous” barriers to pursuing careers as firefighters. Parole restrictions prevent people from traveling to remote areas, EMT certification excludes people with felonies and some misdemeanors, and CAL Fire and municipal fire departments refuse to accept applicants with felony records.
As a result, California was overlooking highly skilled, formerly-incarcerated firefighters, “a group of people sitting at home in California who are ready and willing to do this work right now,” according to Brandon Smith, the executive director of a nonprofit organization, the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program. that trains formerly and currently incarcerated firefighters in California for careers in the wildland and forestry sector.
The average salary of a firefighter in California is $74,000, yet incarcerated firefighters fighting wildfires earned just one dollar an hour to do the same work. According to a 2018 report by Democracy Now!, California saves “up to $100 million a year by using prison labor to fight its biggest environmental problem.”
The California prison system maintains 44 fire camps, including three designated for incarcerated women. According to Smith, the director of Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, while there is “little diversity in California’s fire departments”—most professional firefighters are white men— “the people in fire camps are men of color and women.”
In September 2020, California governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to help expunge the felony records of formerly incarcerated firefighters. This bill will allow former inmates to earn EMT certification and pursue a career path in emergency response services after they have served their time. In an article for The Appeal, Jay Willis described the new law as “a very tentative step toward repairing this broken system, making it slightly easier for certain crew members who have been released from prison to petition courts to expunge their records.”
As Willis reported, the law was opposed by “the same voices who reliably oppose criminal justice reforms,” including police unions, firefighter unions, and prosecutors. Willis noted that opponents of the reform relied on the presumption that people convicted of felonies “are forevermore incapable of being held to the ‘highest possible standard’—a cramped, regressive worldview that treats humans as incapable of growth or change.”
Nonetheless, Governor Newsom’s claim that reform is “eliminating barriers” to careers in firefighting is “a wild overstatement of its likely impact,” Willis wrote. The new process includes many hurdles for former inmates to clear, including separate approvals by prosecutors and judges who can still deem formerly incarcerated firefighters unfit to serve.
As Motherboard reported, establishment news outlets typically blamed the shortage of firefighters to battle California’s 2020 wild fires on Governor Newsom’s decision to release hundreds of inmate firefighters to prevent the spread of Coronavirus in prisons.
Lauren Kaori Gurley, “California Relies on Incarcerated Women to Fight Wildfires. Then It Abandons Them,” Motherboard (VICE), September18, 2020, https://www.vice.com/amp/en/article/v7gaz8/california-relies-on-incarcerated-women-to-fight-wildfires-then-it-abandons-them.
Jay Willis, “A New Law to Help Formerly Incarcerated Firefighters Is Far More Limited Than It Seems, The Appeal, September 15, 2020, https://theappeal.org/california-wildfires-formerly-incarcerated-firefighters/.
Student Researcher: Alexa Laval (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Debora Paterniti (Sonoma State University)