California inmates fight fires for pennies. Now they have a path to turn pro.

Inmate firefighters have battled some of
California’s most destructive wildfires
, including the Thomas
Fire, the Mendocino Complex Fire, the Ferguson Fire, and the Camp
Fire. But for years, most former inmates who had received
firefighting training were ineligible to become professional
firefighters; their criminal records prevented them from getting
the state license necessary for employment.

That changed on Friday, when Governor Gavin Newsom signed

Assembly Bill 2147
into law. The bill, which was sponsored by
Democratic Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, makes it easier for former
inmates who have received training as firefighters to have their
criminal records expunged. With a clean record, former inmates can
obtain the emergency medical technician (EMT) certification that is
needed to work in a municipal firefighting department.

“CA’s inmate firefighter program is decades-old and has long
needed reform,” Newsom tweeted
after signing the bill. “Inmates who have stood on the frontline,
battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later
become a professional firefighter.”

California has relied on inmates to fight wildfires for roughly
80 years. They are trained through the Conservation Camp Program,
which is jointly operated by the state’s Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation, Cal Fire, and the L.A. County Fire
Department. The program has long faced
criticism
from social justice advocates — inmate firefighters
make just
pennies per hour
, with an extra $1 per hour when they are
actively fighting a fire.

The state of California has also been criticized for
relying too heavily
on its inmate firefighting force. This
year, there are more than 1,000 incarcerated firefighters fighting
back the state’s devastating and historic blazes, but that’s
only half as many as usual. Due to the pandemic, many inmate
firefighters have been infected
with COVID-19
and cannot work. Hundreds more have been released
early from prison to curb the virus’ spread. As a result, Newsom
has had to call in reinforcements from
as far away as Australia
.

With the passage of AB 2147, some former inmates have said they
are eager to apply to a firefighting job. “The news is huge,”
said Michael Gebre, a former incarcerated firefighter,
in an interview with NPR
. “With me being an EMT, I could do
more for the community that I serve.”

Some advocates were more cautious. Sonja Tonnesen, deputy
director of programs at the nonprofit Root & Rebound, said AB
2147 is “an important first step,” but that it falls short of a
comprehensive reentry program for former inmates. “There is more
work to be done,” she
told KQED
.

The post
California inmates fight fires for pennies. Now they have a path to
turn pro.
appeared first on Grist.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
California inmates fight fires for pennies. Now they have a path to
turn pro.
on Sep 15, 2020.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
California inmates fight fires for pennies. Now they have a
path to turn pro.