This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
Every year, wildfires burn through, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of acres of California forest, and every year, the state leans heavily on specially trained crews of incarcerated people to stop the flames from spreading farther. For volunteering to do the grueling work of chopping trees and clearing underbrush, they are paid a few dollars a day; while risking their lives to fight an active fire, they receive a $1-per-hour bonus. This state-sanctioned regime of indentured servitude saves taxpayers an estimated $100 million annually.
Exploitative though this system may be, you might think that it at least functions as a badly needed job training program: that people who go through it can begin careers as municipal firefighters after leaving prison, joining an industry that will only become more essential in the many wildfire seasons to come.
That assumption, however, would be far too generous to the carceral state’s interest in actually rehabilitating the people it cages. Local fire departments typically require prospective trainees to obtain an emergency medical technician certification, and California law requires agencies to deny them to people with multiple felony convictions, or who have been imprisoned for a felony within the last decade, or who are on probation or parole for a previous felony conviction. This rule can even prevent formerly incarcerated people from putting their skills to use in volunteer fire departments—an appalling waste.
A bill signed into law last week by Governor Gavin Newsom, Assembly Bill 2147, takes 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. Like many criminal justice “reforms,” this system still requires formerly incarcerated people to jump through a series of administrative hoops in order to have their rights restored. But for those who manage to navigate this bureaucratic maze, getting a job with a local fire department will be within the realm of possibility where it previously was not.
Yet even in California’s hour of need, the same voices who reliably oppose criminal justice reforms were among the bill’s loudest opponents: police unions, firefighter unions, and prosecutors, some of whom told lurid, scary stories in order to make their case. Speaking with the Sacramento Bee, Cal Fire Local 2881 president Tim Edwards argued that the profession’s medical response duties make it unwise to trust formerly incarcerated people to do this work. Consider, he said, a scenario in which he’s “coming into your house at 2 in the morning,” responding to a call from “your 21-year-old daughter” who is “is sitting there with just her underwear and a bra on complaining of abdominal pain and other stuff like that.”
Edwards continued: “When I’m trusted to do my patient assessment, you are trusting me as an individual to not do anything inappropriate to her at that point in time.”
Carroll Wills, communications director for the California Professional Firefighters, echoed this sentiment while discussing a related proposal with the San Francisco Chronicle last year. “If a firefighter who was on the job was to do any of the things these incarcerated individuals have done, they would lose their jobs,” Wills said, emphasizing that the public has an “expectation of trust for people coming into their homes” and providing medical attention.
Wills has also disputed the notion that incarcerated fire crew members are actually firefighters, or could ever live up to that moniker in the first place. “Good for them that they can work to repay their debt to society in this fashion, but that’s not the same thing as a firefighter,” he told CBS13 in Sacramento. “Firefighters are sworn officers. They take an oath and can and should be held to the highest possible standard.”
Of course, prospective firefighters who haven’t previously worked on a prison fire crew are not firefighters, either. Both Edwards’s and Wills’s arguments also rely on the premise 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.
And some formerly incarcerated firefighters highlight the absurdity of assertions that they cannot do work they’ve already proven they can do. “Every time I hear that, I want to be like, ‘But we were responding in people’s homes,’” Amika Mota told The Verge in August. “We were performing CPR on people and bringing people back from drug overdoses. We were responding to correctional officers families’ that got in a car accident on Highway 99 on their way to work. We were those trusted firefighters that you say that we are not worthy of being.”
Rasheed Lockheart, released from San Quentin State Prison earlier this year, offered a similarly incredulous response to this narrative. “If you’re sitting there clutching your chest, barely able to breathe, I don’t think you’re going to say, ‘Wait, are you a formerly incarcerated person?’” he told the Chronicle.
But set aside, for a moment, both the purported safety concerns with the law and the regressive assumptions on which they rely. The new process won’t automatically restore anyone’s rights, and people who were convicted of offenses like murder, rape, or other sex crimes are not even eligible for consideration. (People convicted of many of these offenses generally can’t join fire crews anyway.) It requires that prosecutors be notified of petitions for relief, and allows them to formally object. And it preserves judges’ discretion to grant or deny applications “in the interest of justice,” regardless of the offense at issue. For formerly incarcerated firefighters deemed unworthy at any of these junctures, this law is basically worthless. Newsom’s office’s grandiose description of the bill—as “eliminating barriers” to careers in firefighting—is a wild overstatement of its likely impact.
I am skeptical of “reforms” like AB 2147 that include absolute bars to relief, because boxing out certain categories of people feels like a lazy concession designed to pacify law-and-order types, regardless of whether it actually keeps people safe. The history of implementing criminal justice reforms teaches that courts, perpetually terrified of appearing “soft on crime,” are likely to abuse the discretion afforded to them, erring on the side of caution and turning away many people who deserve a second chance.
You don’t have to agree with me, though, to understand that Edwards’s implication—that enabling formerly incarcerated people to become firefighters would be tantamount to letting predators into their future victims’ homes—is the same slippery-slope argument that is always used against reformers: a nightmare scenario presented as incontrovertible proof that change, no matter how incremental, is not worth the risk. The harm that the status quo inflicts on people who already face discrimination in employment, and who have already demonstrated their willingness to put their bodies on the line to keep Californians safe, goes conspicuously unmentioned in this calculus.
The demand for firefighters in California makes the profession a lucrative one, with an average base salary of about $91,000. A report published last year by the Los Angeles city controller’s office found that some city firefighters collected more than $200,000 in overtime; one earned $360,000 above their base salary. Statewide, overtime pay pushes average total compensation to nearly $150,000, according to the Bee. The tradition of relying heavily on low-wage incarcerated firefighters buttresses this system, allowing the state to meet its firefighting needs while continuing to pay non-incarcerated firefighters handsomely for their work.
Events of the last several years, however, have exposed the fragility of an emergency-response infrastructure that requires a deep pool of prison labor to function. Long-overdue sentencing reforms, a series of COVID-19-related quarantines and releases, and court-mandated overcrowding mitigation have gradually thinned the ranks of incarcerated people available to fight wildfires. Last month, NPR reported that of the state’s 192 prison fire crews, 113 were staffed, and only 102 had been deployed.
A pandemic-induced budget crunch, meanwhile, prompted Newsom to alter plans for the state to hire around 500 new permanent firefighters, dropping the figure to just 172. To compensate for this shortfall, his administration is hiring around 850 seasonal firefighters, and state corrections officials are relaxing eligibility restrictions for existing prison fire crews, allowing some people to serve whose records previously ruled them out.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, union leaders approve of only one aspect of this response. While they have lobbied for more hiring to relieve exhausted firefighters, Edwards has also called on the governor to scale back the use of incarcerated workers, claiming that altered eligibility criteria could create a “big safety concern.” Arguing against similar reforms last year, Wills asserted that firefighter shortages are the product of a limited number of jobs, not of qualified applicants.
“Hundreds of men and women” are “doing everything they need to do to become firefighters,” he told the Chronicle. “There’s no shortage of firefighter candidates.”
It may be true that there are enough people who want to become firefighters that California doesn’t need to make formerly incarcerated people eligible. But that is an entirely separate question from whether the state should do so. Right now, the rules artificially constrain the caliber of applicants, squeezing people with valuable experience out of the market. Frankly, this is just as harmful for a burning state that badly needs skilled firefighters as it is for skilled firefighters looking for work. By deploying sensationalist scare tactics in an effort to preserve this arrangement, anti-reform voices are quietly making California less safe.
Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.