2020 and 2021 will go on record as California’s worst wildfire seasons, with over 3,317,279 acres of land destroyed in twenty months alone. One contributing factor to this massive devastation is California’s inability to control the fires' spread, primarily due to the state’s shortage of firefighters.
In response to this labor shortage, California has tapped incarcerated individuals, primarily low-level crime offenders, as a volunteer firefighting workforce. Today, California has trained approximately 3,700 incarcerated people and stationed them to work in conservation camps throughout the state to provide critical emergency services and support state, local, and federal agencies in combating the record-breaking natural and human-created disasters. However, little attention is paid to the experiences and needs of these incarcerated firefighters who risk their lives to protect Californians from devastating wildfires while simultaneously experiencing the racism and oppression of imprisonment and criminalization.
Philanthropy California’s recent program, Incarcerated Firefighters: At the Intersection of Abolition, Workforce Development, and Wildfire Resilience, invited George Galvis (Executive Director, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice), Amika Mota (Policy Director, Young Women’s Freedom Center), Romarilyn Ralston (Program Director, Project Rebound, California State University - Fullerton), and Brandon Smith (Executive Director, Forestry & Fire Recruitment Program) to discuss California’s reliance on prison labor and the complex challenges these firefighters face during and after incarceration. Our speakers elevated that not only are incarcerated firefighters paid minimally for working in dangerous conditions, but they are also unable to use their skills to obtain municipal firefighting careers upon their release due to their criminal records. Moreover, they emphasized the work of community groups advocating against these rehabilitation programs that many consider modern forms of involuntary servitude.
As California attempts to address its labor shortage and create a path forward for incarcerated firefighters, philanthropy can help the community groups working to create pathways for these individuals to re-enter a workforce where they are included, respected, and supported for the positive contributions they’ve made. Below, you will find some highlights from our program.
Shifting the Narrative Away from “Voluntary Work”
While the fire training program has contributed to an increased sense of worth and purpose for some people, framing it as ‘voluntary’ is questionable and explicitly overshadows the state’s dependency on prison labor to solve its problems. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) states that all work in prisons, including firefighting, is voluntary and can often serve as part of an inmate’s rehabilitation process. Moreover, joining the firefighting workforce is often framed as an opportunity with incentives such as a sense of freedom, better pay, and access to rehabilitation.
Some panelists reported, however, that the workforce isn’t as voluntary or well-intentioned as it seems. Panelists noted that declining participation in work often had been known to come with several forms of retribution. Common forms of punishment for declining invitations to volunteer in job programs include loss of phone calls, loss of visitation rights, time in solitary confinement, or additional time to their sentence. But more fundamentally, incarcerated individuals are being ‘asked to put their lives at risk by fighting on the frontlines of extreme climate disasters to solve a government problem. Community groups and advocates are increasingly trying to shift our understanding of these programs as ‘voluntary’ rehabilitation to better understand them as a form of current-day involuntary labor/servitude.
Advocating for a Holistic Pathway to Work
Outside of prison labor, firefighting is a high-paying career in California, with entry-level salaries averaging $74,700 annually. However, even with their skills and experience, formerly incarcerated firefighters face multiple challenges in gaining employment due to their past criminal records.
California has made attempts to create a path forward for incarcerated individuals. As recently as 2020, California introduced legislation known as AB-2147 which recognized that individuals working in the frontlines in service of the state should be granted special consideration in acquiring employment. Although inactive, the bill presents one framework to help the state initiate a more straightforward pathway to entering a workforce rightfully earned and trained outside of prison. However, the framework presented in AB-2147 is still complicated and does not eliminate many of the barriers to finding employment. As it’s written, the legislation is guided under the assumption that recently released, and eligible individuals have access and resources to retain the legal counsel needed to apply for expungement, all while re-establishing the basic needs of life post-incarceration. Future legislation should consider the entirety of an individual's post-incarceration experience to create a viable pathway to employment and prosperity.
Support Community Groups Providing Job Coaching and Legal Services
Until legislation finalizes a more accessible path to re-entry, formerly incarcerated firefighters need support accessing the limited services available to obtain a living wage in California. To start, individuals who want and are eligible to pursue a career in firefighting post-incarceration will need legal services and support to navigate complex legal terrain such as expungement. Additionally, they will need access to career services to find and prepare for employment. Groups like The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) provide critical job coaching and connections to long-term work for formerly incarcerated individuals. However, the FFRP is just one agency trying to help thousands of people with unique circumstances.
Philanthropy can fund grassroots agencies like the FFRP to help sustain and expand their career and legal services for formerly incarcerated individuals. While these agencies do not have the scale of a government operation, for the time being, these services are helping people navigate all of the obstacles and stigma attached to re-entry. Moreover, investing in these organizations allows them to innovate, which could result in the creation of new solutions and models that could be scaled throughout California and beyond.