Since the 1940s, when they were called upon to replace men fighting in WWII, inmates have been tasked with battling California’s wildfires — and today these men and women (and some juveniles) make up almost a third of the state’s wildfire-fighting team. Although this marginalized population averages 10 million work hours every year (including occasional 24-hour shifts) and is paid even less than minimum wage for their voluntary efforts, now, for the first time, these inmates have a shot at making firefighting a permanent career choice after their release.
That’s because, on Friday, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new bill, AB2147, which allows for some incarcerated individuals “to have their records expunged after serving their sentences,” thereby clearing the path to their post-sentence firefighter career. (Older laws had prohibited many with a conviction from applying to become a firefighter, even if they had battled blazes as inmates.)
“Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter,” Newsom tweeted.
The new law is nothing if not timely, as forest fire devastation on the West Coast has reached apocalyptic proportions, and early COVID-19 releases of inmates have left the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation with “600 fewer inmate firefighters available this fire season compared to last year,” noted the Atlantic.
CA’s inmate firefighter program is decades-old and has long needed reform.— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) September 11, 2020
Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter.
Today, I signed #AB2147 that will fix that. pic.twitter.com/15GJ7Gijt7
Still, although the bill will open up opportunities for many, it won’t do so for all, explains Andrew Ward, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who is suing the state of California for its “near-total ban on EMT certification for people with felony records,” something required to become a firefighter, “which underlies the state’s bizarre practice of using inmates as firefighters and then barring them from firefighting because of their criminal histories.”
Ward does call AB2147 “a step in the right direction,” in that “it gives people who have served in the fire camps an opportunity to get their records expunged, but it doesn’t change the restrictions that are still on the books.” Ward explains to Yahoo Life that individuals remain ineligible if they didn’t serve as firefighters while incarcerated, and that only the charge you faced while actively fighting fires would be removed — meaning that prior convictions could still make a person ineligible to receive the necessary EMT certification. The bill also excludes inmates who have been convicted of any felony punishable by death or life imprisonment including, but not limited to, murder, kidnapping, rape or arson.
Ward says that despite the state moving to dismiss his case, “our lawsuit will continue because [the new bill] doesn’t even cover everyone who’s worked in one of the camps. … It’s great to see that after a couple of years, the legislature could finally get it passed. But it doesn’t fully solve the problem.”
Further, he adds, it’s still too early to know whether or not this will will start a trend amongst other states that rely on inmate firefighters — such as Oregon and Washington — but he remains hopeful. “There's certainly a growing recognition, on the left and the right, that these really harsh laws aren't working. We've seen lots of states reform their laws over the last couple of years, and I certainly hope other ones would follow California's example.”
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