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Arizona’s Incarcerated Firefighters Push for Legislation That Recognizes Their Labor By Reducing Their Sentences

Unlike other states, Arizona offers minimal early release credits for the prisoners it sends to fight its wildfires.

Members of the Earned Release Credits Committee inside Florence State Prison. From left: Francisco X. Aguirre-Proano, Max Block, Adam Tronnier, and Reed Ehmke.Hannah Critchfield

Francisco Aguirre-Proano could see the flames long before the scent of smoke reached his nostrils, or the licking heat raised every hair on the back of his neck.

Mount Lemmon was glowing, a lighthouse against the backdrop of the dimly lit highway.

As he watched the flames envelop the mountain—the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains, located north of Tucson, Arizona— Aguirre-Proano felt almost thankful. He and his crew of incarcerated firefighters would need the adrenaline rush to finish the job.

As the crew hiked into the fire, the only light available came from the embers over their heads.

It was October 2019, and the crew had spent about a week on the mountain. And then the men were transported in vans, smoky and ashen, back to Florence State Prison, where they changed out of firefighter gear and into prison uniforms.

The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Consitution made slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional “except as punishment for crime.” Since the enactment of the amendment in 1865, prison labor has flourished. In Louisiana, home to the plantation turned penitentiary known as Angola, 87 percent of incarcerated people work. The number of incarcerated workers is also high in Northern states: In New York, 73 percent of incarcerated people work. 

In August 2018, prisoners across the country held a strike with a list of demands including “all persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.” Prison strike organizers Jailhouse Lawyers Speak organized under the slogan, “#Abolishthe13th,” a reference to the 13th Amendment. Last month, prison labor received national scrutiny again when The Intercept reported that Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg used incarcerated people to make campaign phone calls. 

Since 1984, Arizona has deployed prisoners like Aguirre-Proano as firefighters through a partnership between the Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the Department of Corrections. In the last three decades, thousands of prisoners have fought Arizona’s fires through the voluntary program, which was created to combat a rising number of wildfires and address a shortage of professional firefighters in the state. 

To become a wildland firefighter—a person who helps suppress fires on public land or incorporated communities—an incarcerated person must meet the same rigorous criteria as professional firefighters. That includes passing a series of educational courses on safety, forestry, emergency response and a fitness test that involves a three-mile course while carrying approximately 45 pounds on their backs, about half of what they might bear in the field. 

Arizona’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management and Department of Corrections do not track the state’s savings from using incarcerated fire crews. But Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management, told The Appeal that “inmate crews provide additional people willing and able to do the work that might not otherwise exist.”

In California, a 2014 federal court ruling that ordered the state to expand its early-release program beyond firefighting was fought by the office of then state attorney general Kamala Harris. Her office argued that an expansion  would “severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.” 

The office later dropped its opposition to the ruling, but there’s little doubt that incarcerated labor still saves the state millions. From October 2013 to September 2015, the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department saved $4.3 million by housing people incarcerated in its jails in Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Los Angeles County fire camps. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state saves $100 million per year by relying on prison labor to fight wildfires.

Similarly, Arizona’s program is widely considered to be a success, hailed by Governor Doug Ducey and civilians alike, who often are unaware that the firefighters are incarcerated. Today, people working on one of Arizona’s 12 prisoner firefighter crews wear the same uniforms as nonincarcerated firefighters, working free of chains, with no reported escapes in the program’s history.

“We get kudos on all of our [inmate] crews, all of the time,” Davila said. “Whether it’s from private citizens, a town, or another fire department working the fire, about how good of a job they do. And that’s across the board.”

Despite such praise, prisoners in the state earn just $1.50 an hour for fighting fires, even though the crews perform the same roles as professional local and state firefighters, and often work in tandem with other professional crews employed by the Department of Forestry and Fire Management. 

“It’s the best adrenaline rush you can get for $1.50 an hour,” Aguirre-Proano said with a laugh.

And unlike California, where prisoners earn a two-day sentence reduction for every day worked fighting fires (known as “2-for-1 credits”), Arizona’s incarcerated firefighters get a one-day reduction for every six days.

But one crew of incarcerated Arizona firefighters is fighting for a bill to change that. 

At 58, Francisco X. Aguirre-Proano is much older than the average incarcerated firefighter. He went to prison in March 2018 on charges that included mortgage fraud and forgery after a long career in the real estate business. He said he joined a wildland firefighting crew for the camaraderie and challenge.  “I come from a different angle than most of these folks,” he said. “But the thing we have in common is being a part of this crew, this fraternity if you will. And it’s sort of magical, because over time, you begin to see the change in people. Folks who have really transformed their lives.”

“In many ways, this felt like my most direct path to redemption,” he said. “This has been my way to give back.” 

Aguirre-Proano is a believer in the rehabilitative power of firefighting: He said members of his crew were in prison for drug-related offenses and that the program seemed to have a healing effect on them. “When you join a fire crew like this, you enter into a world of discipline. A world where you have to be accountable. When we go to a fire, those skills—leadership, integrity, responsibility—those skills are essential. Because my life is gonna depend on that guy right there. His life is going to depend on what I do. And I am just incredibly proud of these folks because I’ve seen their growth.”

But Aguirre-Proano argues that there are more disincentives than incentives for incarcerated people, including meager pay, long hours, and the dangerous nature of the work. “It’s not a black or white situation,” said Corene Kendrick, staff attorney at the nonprofit Prison Law Office, where she oversees the organization’s litigation in an ongoing case over conditions inside Arizona state prisons. “They enjoy the work, it’s an opportunity to give back to society, they’re out of the horrible conditions inside the prison and in the fresh air, but the tradeoff is that they’re getting paid less than minimum wage.”

Aguirre-Proano believes that the potential of Arizona’s firefighting program could be fulfilled if the state embraced California’s 2-for-1 credits system. “I learned that other Western states have been offering imprisoned wildland firefighters extra earned-release credits for decades,” he said. “So why not Arizona?”

In 1993, during the peak of the nation’s “tough on crime” era, Arizona passed truth in sentencing laws that eliminated parole for anyone sentenced after Jan. 1, 1994, and required incarcerated people to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, one of the strictest sentencing laws in the country. 

Pardons are also rare in the state. To date, Governor Ducey, a Republican, has granted one (in 2016). His predecessor, Jan Brewer, a Republican, granted 13 pardons during her tenure from 2009 to 2015. Her predecessor, Democrat Janet Napolitano, granted 22 pardons.

Arizona’s policies have created one of the most carceral states in the U.S. From 1978 to 2015, Arizona’s prison incarceration rate grew from under 200 per 100,000 people to approximately 600 per 100,000 people. With an incarceration rate of 877 per 100,000 people, the state is the eighth most-incarcerated in the U.S. 

In June, Ducey signed Senate Bill 1310, which allows people convicted solely of drug offenses to be released after serving 70 percent of their sentence, instead of the 85 percent mandated under its truth in sentencing laws. An Arizona Department of Corrections review found that 7,367 people could be released early under SB 1310, but so far only about 506 have been freed. 

Also in June, the Arizona House of Representatives appointed nine of its members to serve on an Earned Release Credits For Prisoners Ad Hoc Committee, to study the current “earned release credit” program for incarcerated people. Representative Walter Blackman was appointed chairperson of the committee.

In July, Aguirre-Proano, who was already researching California’s early-release system for incarcerated firefighters, began writing letters to Blackman. Aguirre-Proano asked him to consider a bill that would make Arizona’s incarcerated firefighters eligible for extra early-release credits, based on the California model.

The bill would offer a one-day reduction in the sentence of an incarcerated firefighter for every two days served in the field replacing the current system of a one-day reduction for every six days spent fighting fires. 

Aguirre-Proano believes that his crew demonstrates the success of earned-release programs: With the right structures of support, the Florence Wildland Crew became a team that positively contributed to society and saved lives throughout the state.

“I put my hand in the fire—pun intended—for this legislation, because I would say that the crews throughout Arizona are very similar,” Aguirre-Proano said. “It would be a commonsensical, everybody-wins triumph.”

By July, Aguirre-Proano’s fellow crew members agreed that they should make a legislative push. Five men—Aguirre-Proano, Max Block, Adam Tronnier, Reed Ehmke, and Joseph Anderson—formed the Earned Release Credits Committee inside Florence State Prison. The group continued sending letters to Blackman, and convinced the other firefighters and their family members to do the same.

“I know I want to pursue this after—this has made me find a career path after my incarceration,” Tronnier told The Appeal. “That’s huge really. It’s an identity that I’ve found. I’m not just an inmate, I’m a part of this crew. It makes you proud of who you are.” 

Block, a squad boss on the crew who has been fighting fires for more than two years, said: “To the public, we might look just like inmates working on a job, but it’s more than that to us. It’s huge to us, it’s life-changing. I’m held accountable every single day for my actions and I have responsibilities that others rely on. And when you have that path laid out, it’s like, fuck, where has that been all my life? And we’ve finally made it here—it’s shitty that we’re here—but we’re finally got something, and we’re able to hold onto that. I don’t necessarily love this work, but I love what it does for me.”

In an email, Anderson wrote: “It’s taught me everything I need for when I get out. First, a trade and skill I can use. Second, a work ethic to keep a job. Third, how to communicate with employers and employees. To have passion, patience, and kindness.”

Kevin Boyle, squad leader for the Superstition Crew, the other firefighter crew in Florence Prison, has been on his squad for four years. He said in an email: “This program has brought me closer to my daughter and helped me become a better father. I’ve learned that you don’t need drugs and alcohol to have a good time, and I’ve met a lot of people along the way that have helped me, and would give good references for me. I have been offered plenty of job opportunities, and that makes me feel so much better going forth with my future.”

Aguirre-Proano said his letters to Blackman centered on this transformation of the “kids”—everyone younger than him is a kid, he noted with a laugh—on his crew.

“People that leave here—and look, I’m not saying that every individual here will be a success,” he said. “Hopefully they will. However, I dare to say that the recidivism rate is much lower in the wildlife prison crews than the general population.”

Arizona’s Department of Forestry does not track recidivism rates of formerly incarcerated firefighters. But in a July 2017 opinion article in the Arizona Daily Star, Governor Ducey wrote, “to me, the program is a way of letting these individuals pay back their communities and, by giving them a chance to be productive members of society, increasing the likelihood that they won’t return to prison after being released. Often, it means a job is waiting when they walk out the doors.”

The program can also create post-incarceration employment opportunities. In 2017, Arizona’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management founded a first of its kind, Phoenix-based firefighting crew composed of people on post-release who either spent time on a firefighting crew while incarcerated or had previous firefighting experience. 

In October, Representative Blackman told the Florence Earned Release Credits Committee that he was on board with its proposal for early-release credits. 

“I think they have proven that they are folks that we can trust, and that deserve a second chance,” Blackman said in an interview with The Appeal. “If no other earned-release legislation gets across the finish line, I’d like for us to pay special attention to those that are fighting fires. These folks are putting their lives on the line saving the forestry of Arizona every time they go out of the prison.”

Indeed, firefighting is an inherently dangerous job—five prisoners  were killed in 1990 while fighting a fire in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest—and is expected to become more perilous in coming years due to climate change. Arizona may experience more than one month’s worth of additional high-risk fire days by 2050, according to a Climate Central study published in 2016.

“All I can speak to is my experience,” Aguirre-Proano said. “Now I’m not an expert on climate change, but you can’t help but see and feel, in our case, that the months are getting hotter. We’re getting called later in the season, and it is a more aggravating environment than in previous years. And if you look at fires in Southern California, they’re increasing. So something’s happening.”

It’s another reason many believe their contribution should be recognized in additional earned-release credits. “I think that [the inmate firefighter program] shows just how perversely the state has depended on prison labor,” said Kendrick of the Prison Law Office. “They’re not getting any protection on the job like workers compensation if they’re injured, and again, they’re getting paid so little that it can be exploitative. It’s not a black or white situation—it does teach people skills, but at the same time, there’s tension in it.”

On Dec. 2, the Earned Release Credits Committee released its key recommendations. None of them mentioned wildland firefighters, or a specific provision for them to earn extra release credits. But Blackman said  he plans to introduce the Wildland Firefighters Release bill this month, which would provide a special earned-release credit ratio for incarcerated firefighters. He declined to comment on the number of days off for days served firefighters would earn under the proposal.

“Even if we can’t get a bill for all earned-release credit folks, I think that firefighters in our prison system are the best possible case scenario for a pilot program,” Blackman said. “To show the rest of the state and country that if we really invest in these folks who are incarcerated, then we’ll have a product that’s successful at the end of the journey.” 

On Jan. 15, Governor Ducey announced during his State of the State address that he would close Florence State Prison due to low staffing levels there. Ducey’s office later said that people incarcerated there “will be relocated to a combination of third-party operators and county corrections facilities.”

It’s unclear how this will impact the two firefighting crews within Florence, including Aquirre-Proano’s.

“We hope they keep the Florence crew together, though at this time it’s too early to tell what is going to happen,” said Aquirre-Proano in a phone call with The Appeal. “It makes sense, now more than ever, to introduce and pass legislation that will affect all firefighters, for the reasons we have discussed previously.”

Today, advocates will gather for ReFraming Justice Day 2020 at the Arizona Capitol to push for broad reform of the state’s highly punitive criminal legal system. The lineup of speakers includes Matthew Charles, a Tennessee man released from prison under the First Step Act, and Ashley Ehmke, the wife of Florence prison firefighter Ehmke. 

“This legislature is probably going to have the largest slate of criminal justice reform bills to date—and they’re largely bipartisan,” said Caroline Isaacs, program director at the American Friends Service Committee’s Arizona office, which is organizing the rally. “There are remedies that are needed in all those areas, including earned-release credits and sentencing reform bills, which will help send fewer people to prison, and help them get out earlier.”