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There Are 200 California Inmates Fighting the Camp Fire. After Prison, They Likely Won't Be Allowed to Become Firefighters

California's licensing laws mean inmates can risk their lives for less than $2 per day, but can't earn a living after they get out of prison.

Elijah Hurwitz/ZUMA Press/NewscomElijah Hurwitz/ZUMA Press/NewscomAbout 200 inmates are among the thousands of firefighters still doing battle with the massive wildfire that has destroyed the town of Paradise, California, and killed at least 31 people.

Once they are released from prison, however, most of them will be prohibited from joining the fire crews that they currently work alongside. It's a cruel irony that demonstrates just how difficult life can be for the formerly incarcerated—even those with needed, practical skills—who continue to be punished long after they have paid their debt to society, and bad policy that effectively prevents the state from calling upon well-trained, experienced firefighters when wildfires erupt.

According to local media reports, there are 200 inmates from 16 different fire crews helping fight the dangerous Camp Fire, which is now the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state's history. As of Monday morning, the fire had burned more than 113,000 acres and was only 25 percent contained. There are also inmate firefighters helping to battle two blazes in southern California, including one that has burned the set of Westworld and prompted an evacuation of Malibu.

Those inmate fightfighters are volunteers who earn $2 a day, and $1 an hour when fighting an active fire, while working alongside professionals who get paid an average of $74,000 per year. Those significant cost savings are part of the reason why convicts can account for up to half of the firefighting personnel on the scene at any California wildfire, according to a 2017 profile of the state's inmate firefighter program by The New York Times.

California's inmate firefighter program is open to prisoners who are not convicted of arson, sexual crimes, kidnapping or gang-related offenses, as long as they do not have a history of escape attempts and are not facing a life sentence. They receive two weeks of firefighting training and must pass a physical exam.

As I wrote in August, most of California's inmate firefighters will not be able to work in the firefighting profession after they are released because of the state's deliberately exclusionary licensing laws. Firefighters in California are required to be licensed as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), which requires taking classes and passing a few state-administered exams. No problem there, but state law allows licensing boards to block anyone with a criminal record from getting an EMT license.

These so-called "blanket bans" on letting formerly incarcerated individuals obtain mandatory licenses don't do much to improve public safety—if someone is a legitimate threat to the public, or has been convicted of certain crimes, the licensing board could block that individual application without denying a job opportunity to scores of others—and may increase crime in the long run. Indeed, a 2017 study by the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University found that formerly incarcerated residents are more likely to commit a new crime within three years of being released from prison if they live in a state that prohibits them from getting a license solely due to a criminal record.

Instead of a blanket ban, California should rewrite its licensing laws to include prohibitions for specific criminal offenses—exactly how the California Department of Corrections operates their inmate firefighter program, for example, by prohibiting individuals who committed certain crimes. That's one of the reasons why the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that advocates for loosening access to jobs, says California's licensing laws "need imrpovement."

"The persistent, horrific wildfires year after year make this human rights issue even more pressing for the men and women fighting these fires every day who cannot do so once released," says Katherine Katcher, founder and executive director of Root and Rebound, a California-based nonprofit that helps the formerly incarcerated find jobs after getting out of prison, told me in August. She said the state's discriminatory licensing rules "shut people out of living wage careers that they are trained and qualified for solely because of old, expunged, and irrelevant convictions."

Giving the formerly incarcerated better economic opportunities when they get out of prison is good for everyone. It makes the adjustment to post-prison life less difficult for the formerly incarcerated, it increases the number of qualified and trained firefighters in a state where wildfires are a serious concern, and it means the time and money spent training inmates to battle wildfires would provide dividends long after they've been released.

Photo Credit: Elijah Hurwitz/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    They get released early.

    They can become volunteer firefighters.

    Jesus Boehm, you really need to do your homework.

    Besides, Commifornia is a horrible example of people, even people with no criminal records, from getting quick and cheap licensing.

  • Jerryskids||

    I know unionized humble public servant firefighters get paid a shitload in California, how much does a volunteer firefighter get paid?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    So its about equal pay?

    Maybe people who do different roles even in the same field or industry should get paid differently.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    How is the role of a volunteer fireman different from the role of an employee fireman, excluding the fact that one gets paid and one doesn't? Both, you know, try to put out fires.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Just look up what a shift of a regular firefighter consists of compared to a volunteer firefighter.

    Hint: one works days at a time and then gets a few days off and get paid compensation.
    Another only works when there is a fire.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    So by your logic we should pay the firefighters for the time they're sitting on their asses but not pay them for the time they actually fight fires. To somebody like you, I suppose that would make sense.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    God youre dumb.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Yes. Because they aren't just sitting on their asses. They train every day, and are able to deploy much more quickly than a volunteer force. The volunteers first have to assemble, Avengers-style, learn the situation then head out. The full timers get the call and are en route by the time the volunteer finishes reading his text message to report to the station.

  • Kivlor||

    LC, the point of the article is that they are gaining experience in a skill that would be of value to them when they need employment upon release, and they won't be able to use that skill to make a living because they are forbidden it.

    The response "But they can be volunteer firefighters" completely misses the point of the article. It's like saying someone is getting trained in the skills to be a professional chef, but when they're done they're forbidden from making a living as a chef... and then responding "well, they can always volunteer at the local soup kitchen"

    WTF?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Licensing is one aspect of becoming a firefighter. Skill is another.

    Right, why not use thousands of trained ex-con firefighters to fill the ranks of fire departments in California since they have extensive skills in fighting fires that newbie firefighter trainees dont have?

    Because many are in-and-out of jail. Many are drug addicts. Some are thugs and semi-violent offenders.

  • Kivlor||

    The question that seems to be begged is: Should that decision not be left up to the individual fire departments, rather than a blanket ban. Assuming they're not arsonists.

  • ThomasD||

    What also misses the point is the fact that these positions are government positions, so the government very much can set standards for people wanting those positions.

    I'm of two minds on this.

    On the one hand, it would be better for people who have completed their sentence to not have unnecessary barriers to employment.

    On the other hand, given the very real history of what fire departments were, and can still easily become, felons may not be the best candidates.

    We have enough criminals in government as it is.

  • Ron||

    In California there are few if any volunteer firefighters anymore since they now have to spend weeks in training to become one and no one has time to do that. that rule brought to you by the unions to keep volunteers away

  • Kivlor||

    I'm pretty sure that the point of the article is constant across most of the states. It's pretty common that if you have a criminal record you are barred from professional licensing, or at best you get to go through all the training and pay all the fees, and then ask for a professional licensing board to look at your case and decide for themselves if they'll deign to let you get licensed.

  • spork||

    Oh look, this story again!

    Yep! Still total bullshit!

  • buybuydandavis||

    How many stories does Boehm have?

    70% are
    Story 1 - Look, a particular category is made worse off by Trump's change in trade policy. Wah.
    Story 2 - Orange Man Bad

  • Juice||

    California's inmate firefighter program is open to prisoners who are not convicted of arson

    But wouldn't they have a bit of a knowledge edge?

  • Agammamon||

    Hell, at least part of fighting fires is setting them.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    As a left-libertarian, I want people released from prison to be able to rejoin society. They should have all the rights and privileges the rest of us have. (Except possibly gun rights.)

  • Ron||

    As a true libeatarian if you've done your time you get all rights back including gun rights

  • buybuydandavis||

    Does not follow at all.

    Rights aren't all or nothing. They retain rights in prison. They may retain penalties at the end of incarceration. Nothing unlibertarian about it.

  • Kivlor||

    As a far-right reactionary, I still think that if you get out of prison you shouldn't be barred from much of anything when you're done. I'd be willing to make exceptions for "Hey, you were a banker, and you defrauded your creditors of millions, so you can't be a banker ever again" but such things should be very narrow and not used for most people.

    As to rights, I think rights are inherent to man through nature's God. The idea you can tell a man he can never defend himself again after release from prison because X is an injustice. It should be forbidden to the government.

  • Salero21||

    Well hell yeah, that's what happens when you live a life of Crime and Delinquency, there's a price to pay.
    That price is among others the lost of Freedom, if the crime is Murder then the loss of life is the prescribed, and proper punishment.
    Still they all get clothing for summer and winter, heating in the winter and AC summer, 3 good meals a day, Gym, TV, Movies, Library, and Dental and Medical care. The same Dental and Medical that often the victims of their Crimes struggle to have.
    All of that an more PAID for by the TAXPAYERS, among them the Victims of their Crimes, their Families, Relatives, Friends, fellow workers, fellow students, Neighbors, etc. etc. In other words the whole of Society has to pay MORE TAXES, just to PAY for the care of Criminals and Delinquents, who have committed and will commit the Crimes over and over against that same Society that cares for them. That's because the have a Legal system, NOT a Justice system. A system that makes a MOCKERY of Justice every hour of every day, year after year.

  • Kivlor||

    I'm trying to figure out what you're outraged about? That they are clothed? That they are fed? That they aren't left to die from medical issues? WTF are you going on about here? Of course "society" (government/taxpayers) pays for this. Who else would?

    A justice system should strive to be just and by taking these people into your custody, you become responsible for their existence, because that is a part of justice.

    If you're upset about them being given access to a gym, or HVAC, or TV or books, then why include the others?

  • buybuydandavis||

    There's not a lot of security risk for cons putting out burning trees.

    But fireman go into homes and deal directly with people. The security risk is high.

    "Instead of a blanket ban, California should rewrite its licensing laws to include prohibitions for specific criminal offenses"

    Maybe. Most *actual* crime by libertarian standards I'd consider disqualifying. Force or fraud doesn't get a uniform.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "California's inmate firefighter program is open to prisoners who are not convicted of arson, sexual crimes, kidnapping or gang-related offenses"

    Restrictive enough for putting out forest fires, not restrictive enough for interaction with the public and access to their homes.

  • ThomasD||

    It's not even the "going into homes" risk that's the major concern.

    It's the fire department becoming as inefficient, ineffective, and corrupt as waste disposal is that is the real threat.

  • Wise Old Fool||

    So it doesn't sound like anyone is being forced to join the fire fighting program. Am I wrong? It probably beats a boring day of 23 in the cell and 1 hour of rec room time.

  • Ben_||

    I heard they get like 5000 applicants for every firefighting job opening, so they wouldn't have been hired anyway. Also, firefighters are overpaid by an obscene amount if this is true.

  • dsquaredoutlet||

    Note that even as legislators and police recognize the bad consequences of treating crack cocaine like a uniquely dangerous threat deserving harsher punishment, they're falling into the trap of treating fentanyl as a unique threat...

    If you want them to ease off fentanyl, you're going to have to supply a replacement existential threat.

    marcelo burlon t shirt

  • JOIN WAL||

    Well hell yeah, that's what happens when you live a life of Crime and Delinquency, there's a price to pay.
    That price is among others the lost of Freedom, if the crime is Murder then the loss of life is the prescribed, and proper punishment.
    Still they all get clothing for summer and winter, heating in the winter and AC summer, 3 good meals a day, Gym, TV, Movies, Library, and Dental and Medical care. The same Dental and Medical that often the victims of their Crimes struggle to have.
    All of that an more PAID for by the TAXPAYERS, among them the Victims of their Crimes, their Families, Relatives, Friends, fellow workers, fellow students, Neighbors, etc. etc. In other words the whole of Society has to pay MORE TAXES, just to PAY for the care of Criminals and Delinquents, who have committed and will commit the Crimes over and over against that same Society that cares for them. That's because the have a Legal system, NOT a Justice system. A system that makes a MOCKERY of Justice every hour of every day, year after year.www.Mesalary.com

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