Update, Sept. 11: On Friday, Sept. 11, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2147 into California law.
CA’s inmate firefighter program is decades-old and has long needed reform.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— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) September 11, 2020
California bill AB 2147, which as of Tuesday, Sept. 8, was sitting on Governor Newsom’s desk, would allow former prisoners who have successfully worked in one of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation’s fire camps to petition a judge to quickly expunge their records and waive parole time. They then would be able to apply not only for an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) license but a host of other licenses required by other professions.
As of this writing, California law does not allow emergency service agencies at the local and state levels to grant EMT certification to anyone with two or more felonies, anyone on parole or probation or anyone who committed a felony in the last decade. An EMT license is required to become a city or county firefighter.
Critics say it is illogical to allow non-violent prisoners who exhibit “good behavior” while behind bars to serve as firefighters while they’re incarcerated, yet forbidding them to be hired as firefighters once they are released because of their criminal records.
“California’s prison system doesn’t have an abundance of successful job training and rehabilitation programs for inmates,” an opinion piece from the LA Times Editorial Board, published in 2019, stated. “The prisoner fire crews are a rare exception. The state spends heavily on training and supervision for inmates who work in life-and-death situations. It’s foolish to allow blanket restrictions on professional licensing to prevent them using those skills after they are released.”
Some say the policy is also short-sighted, because right now, the state desperately needs more firefighters in Northern California where over a million acres have already burned this year. The state has already trained the prisoners who work or have worked at one of 43 active conservation camps around the state.
For decades, thousands of California prisoners have opted to join the state’s fire camps, where they act as a hand crew and are often first responders. Inmate crews receive the same training as California’s seasonal firefighters and do much of the same work (digging fire lines and even fighting fires), but are only paid up to five dollars a day, plus one dollar per hour while fighting an actual fire.
Inmate firefighters were on the front lines during the Woolsey Fire and many other fires around Malibu over the years. There is a female inmate fire camp near Malibu—Malibu Conservation Camp 13—and a firefighter from there died in 2016 after being hit by a boulder while fighting a local brushfire.
The firefighter, Shawna Lynn Jones, was memorialized with a firefighter’s funeral including the traditional firefighter honor guard appearing on overpasses as her body was transported for burial in Lancaster, all despite her status as an inmate. She is memorialized by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of inmate firefighter Shawna Jones, 22, who passed away after suffering a fatal injury from a falling boulder while fighting a brush fire in Malibu this past week,” a post on a Malibu Search and Rescue social media account said at the time.
“The female inmate firefighters do a tremendous service for our community and their position is coveted and tremendously difficult to qualify for,” the post continued. “We hope she is remembered for her service to all.”
Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes (D) of the San Bernardino area has been pushing the bill for the past several years.
Even the Los Angeles Lakers tweeted support for the legislation: “Thank you to all of our firefighters and first responders, including our incarcerated men and women fighting the current California wildfires. Human rights are everyone’s rights. Create a pathway for former inmates who successfully completed fire camp while incarcerated.”