Inmates in the state of California have the option to go to Conservation (Fire) Camps. The program consists of trained inmates who respond to emergencies such as fires, floods, and other manmade disasters. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation joined with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) and the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LAC Fire) for the program to run smoothly. Each department jointly operates 43 conservation camps known as fire camps in 27 counties.
Overall, there are approximately 3,100 inmates working at fire camps currently. A good portion of those inmates is fire line-qualified inmates. Also, camp inmates can work as support staff in the camps. The firefighter inmates receive the same entry-level training that CAL Fire’s seasonal firefighters receive.
As California fires continue to spread within the state and inmate firefighters continue to volunteer to help put them out, many people felt like the state of California was exploiting these inmates that are helping to put out fires when they won’t even be allowed to apply for a firefighter position when they serve their prison sentence. Plus, on top of that, they only get paid up to $1 per hour when they’re in the field and $2 per day when they’re not on duty. In some cases, they also reduce an inmate’s sentences. This issue goes beyond California also, with many inmates after they’re released they lose a huge portion of opportunities due to their record.
But as of Sept. 11th, Gov. Newsom signed a bill that would allow inmate firefighters to work professionally after serving prison time. In a recent video addressing the bill, Gov. Newsom stated, “Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter.”
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.
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) September 11, 2020
A portion of the bill states, “This bill would allow a defendant who successfully participated in the California Conservation Camp Program or a county incarcerated individual hand crew as an incarcerated individual hand crew member, and has been released from custody, to petition to withdraw their plea of guilty or plea of nolo contendere and enter a plea of not guilty.”
The bill will allow inmate firefighters records expunged after serving time so they have an easier path to becoming regular firefighters upon release. Which will make them eligible to receive EMT certification, a hiring requirement of municipal firefighting departments. The bill excludes those convicted of certain crimes, including murder, kidnapping, rape, arson, or any felony punishable by death or life imprisonment.
The bill was also sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes who spoke highly about the bill. In her statement, she said, “We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around.”
Many law enforcement and prosecutors opposed the bill arguing that those who served time in prison have already deemed themselves as a threat to the public no matter if they have record or not. Both Gov. Newsom and Reyes have not made any further comments to people who oppose the bill.