As Inmate Firefighters Struggle to Find Jobs, SoCal Lawmaker Hopes Erasing Criminal Records After Release Will Help

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Inmate firefighters from Oak Glen Conservation Camp near Yucaipa, California fight the Easy Fire on Oct. 30, 2019, near Simi Valley. (Credit: David McNew/Getty Images)

Inmate firefighters from Oak Glen Conservation Camp near Yucaipa, California fight the Easy Fire on Oct. 30, 2019, near Simi Valley. (Credit: David McNew/Getty Images)

Standing among the firefighters battling some of California’s most devastating recent wildfires were crews of inmates, clad in their bright orange uniforms and hard helmets as roaring flames ripped though the brush before them.

Hundreds of inmates have helped battle California’s wildfires in recent years, but they still struggle to find jobs after their releases from custody— even at local fire departments.

Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes , D-San Bernardino, introduced legislation on Monday that would provide a faster expungement process for the inmates, clearing their criminal records right after their releases in hopes of clearing a pathway for them to pursue careers.

A crew of inmate firefighters takes a break from battling the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg. (Credit: Philip Pacheco/AFP/Getty Images)
A crew of inmate firefighters takes a break from battling the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg.
(Credit: Philip Pacheco/AFP/Getty Images)

The proposed law, AB 2147, would allow eligible people who participate in the California Conservation Camp Program or a county inmate hand crew to petition to withdraw their guilty pleas, have the court dismiss the accusations against them and order an early end to probation, parole or supervised release.

Under existing law, parolees have to complete the terms of their paroles before applying to clear their criminal records, and even if that’s approved, they would still have to disclose their criminal histories when applying for state licenses, including ones required by fire departments.

That often results in the trained ex-prisoners being denied jobs.

“A criminal conviction should not be a life sentence that prevents someone from ever being able to start a career and turn their life around and to make their community and this state a better place,” Reyes said in written statement.

The assemblywoman said that inmates who undergo the extensive training and battle California’s wildfires have already “demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation.”

A firefighter speaks to an inmate firefighter as they prepare to put out flames on the road leading to the Reagan Library during the Easy Fire in Simi Valley on Oct. 30, 2019.(Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
A firefighter speaks to an inmate firefighter as they prepare to put out flames on the road leading to the Reagan Library during the Easy Fire in Simi Valley on Oct. 30, 2019.(Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

There are now over 3,000 inmates working at fire camps across the state, and most are qualified to fight fires, according to the Conservation Camp Program.

Low-security prisoners can volunteer to be part of the program and they get the same training that Cal Fire’s seasonal firefighters get, in addition to ongoing training from the agency throughout their time in the program.

Those who are convicted of sexual offenses, arson or have any histories of escape with force or violence are automatically ineligible.

Working for $1 an hour, nearly 800 inmates helped battle the Camp Fire in 2018 and over 400 inmate hand crews helped with the Kincade Fire, according to Reyes.

A small group was also sent to help battle the Saddleridge Fire in the San Fernando Valley last year.

Some crews worked for 24 hours straight without a break, according to the California Department of Corrections.

The 44 conservation camps make up about 219 firefighting crews, which act as critical support to fire agencies responding to wildfires, floods and sometimes rescues. At least three inmates have died while battling fires since 2017, according to the bill.

Inmate firefighters take a break during the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, California, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Credit: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images)
Inmate firefighters take a break during the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, California, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Credit: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images)

Following a series of major wildfires across the state, overtime costs for firefighters surged by 65% over the past decade, pushing annual wages to nearly $5 billion, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

This drew concerns about overworked firefighters who spend 24-hour shifts on the fire lines during major wildfires.

But fire commanders argue that it’s often cheaper to pay the overtime than to hire more firefighters, because of the cost of training and benefits, according to the Times.

Assemblywoman Reyes’ office estimates that the work the inmates do saves taxpayers approximately $100 million annually.

As the state’s increasingly devastating wildfires become more frequent and fire season grows longer, the inmate crews have been helping with preventing further damage as they clear brush and fallen trees and help with maintaining parks, sand bagging, flood protection and reforestation.

“For those formerly incarcerated that have served the state assisting with battling some of the worst fires in our state’s history we must do more to give them real pathways to employment,” Reyes said.

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