In 2014, Brandon Smith—unemployed but trained as a wildland firefighter—applied for upwards of 15 positions at local and state fire departments in California. Qualified for the work after two years of firefighting, he spent nearly 18 months fielding rejections, not because of his credentials, but because he couldn’t pass a background check. One local department offered him a job, but then rescinded it when they saw he had formerly been incarcerated.
There are thousands of other people like Smith, formerly incarcerated and trained as firefighters, who face a number of hurdles when applying for jobs. To overcome these systemic barriers, Smith and fellow wildland firefighter Royal Ramey founded the Fire and Forestry Recruitment Program, aimed at training and helping formerly incarcerated people find employment as firefighters.
As the state enters the most catastrophic fire season on record, the work of wildland firefighters is more critical than ever, yet the state is facing a shortage of potential workers. For years, the state has lacked a formalized process for incorporating firefighters that have been incarcerated into its ranks. This year that could change.
A History of Labor Exploitation
The formal incarcerated workforce coevolved with the outside labor market; as young men traveled abroad to fight in wars, the value of incarcerated labor increased. California created the first “conservation camps” to train incarcerated firefighters under the purview of the Department of Forestry in 1915, just before the onset of WWI, and expanded the operation to create 41 more camps during WWII.
Later, in the 1980s and ’90s, the United States’ “war on crime” justified putting an unprecedented number of people in federal prisons, and individual states followed suit. In California, the state prison population more than tripled in two decades: Between 1985 and 2006, the number of people vaulted from 50,000 to 173,000.
Decades after the creation of the first conservation camp, incarcerated people still function as cheap labor to address the fallout from climate change that has arisen from political inaction and unchecked industry expansion. In other words, as the number of incarcerated people increased, so too did their importance in controlling the impacts of a warmer and weirder climate.
This year alone, at least 7,000 wildfires have ravaged the state, compared with 7,860 wildfires that struck California in all of 2019. And it’s only September—normally the midpoint of fire season. The number of acres set ablaze ballooned as well: Last year, fires burned through 259,823 acres, whereas this year at least 1.6 million acres have already burned.
Incarcerated firefighters play a critical role in managing the spread of potentially catastrophic fires, working at least 3 million hours each year for poverty wages to protect homes and cities.
“The inmate crews are trained and available to respond to all types of emergencies, including wildfires, floods, and search and rescue,” says Christine McMorrow, the resource management and communications officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
After the onset of coronavirus in the U.S., the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation allowed thousands of incarcerated people to return home because the state’s prisons were ill-equipped to prevent the spread of the virus. For instance, one transfer of incarcerated people to San Quentin prison resulted in more than 1,000 people getting infected with the virus—about one third of the total population. In total, 26 people incarcerated at San Quentin died as a result of a COVID-19 infection. Overall, CDCR has an infection rate more than double the state’s and nearly triple the nation’s.
In releasing people ahead of schedule, the state let go of a significant portion of the laborers CAL FIRE would need to tackle the mounting wildfire crisis. The question of how to navigate the wildfires without exploitable labor seemed to stump officials, as if it was in the public’s best interest to keep people locked up in order to use them as wildland firefighters.
“Large swaths of criminalized workers act as this reserved form of labor,” says Lucius Couloute, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University. “From an employer’s point of view, when you have stigmatized workers, you don’t need to pay them as much or allocate as many resources.”
This fire season, about 1,345 incarcerated firefighters are on the fire line clearing brush, cutting out roots, conducting controlled burns, and doing the work that any other wildland firefighter would do, according to Aaron Francis, an information officer with CDCR. However, that’s about one third of the incarcerated workforce the state usually has access to.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not available. It just means they’re no longer incarcerated and therefore no longer exploitable. Smith says the state needs to hire firefighters trained while incarcerated and offer them livable wages for their labor.
“It makes no sense that the state of California is putting out a plea for more firefighters,” Smith says, especially because there are “men and women who were just doing the job in the thousands who are just sitting at home watching the news.”
The reliance on the labor of incarcerated people who perform work for poverty wages ultimately benefits the state. For their labor, incarcerated firefighters earn between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, says Francis. On an active fire, they can earn $1 per hour. Couloute says that employers (California included) “benefit from having this group of stigmatized workers. When people have a criminal record, there are all sorts of ideas about those people, that ‘they’re undeserving for those resources’ [or] that they’ve ‘transgressed those social contracts.’”
But the social contracts Francis is referencing protect those with historical institutional power. White people and property owners have designed the social contracts so that incarcerating someone is not seen as objectionable, while crimes of survival are.
For a while, those messages stuck with Smith. “When I was in prison, I kind of took on what the world thought of me. [Firefighting] was really the pivot that recentered my life,” Smith says. Firefighting is more than a job, he says. It’s a way of life, a way of moving through the world, which can be especially powerful for people who have been discounted and disregarded. “I matter,” he says. “I can help the community. I can personally atone for the challenges in my life by making the world a better place.”
Navigating the Maze
But as Smith and Ramey know firsthand, having wildland firefighting skills won’t necessarily land you a job after you get home. Smith compares securing employment to running through a maze: “There was only one specific way to make it through this,” Smith says of the time he spent networking and advocating for a position on a fire engine, “and you have to be the most diligent person in the world to make it happen.”
This metaphorical maze actually starts long before the job search, though, growing up in one’s home community and in schools, Couloute says: “Black and Latino folks often face the harshest level of discipline [and] highest rates of suspension and expulsion.” He notes that public spending on surveillance, policing, and control of Black and Latino people often dwarfs what’s allocated for services that support overall health and well-being. Nothing illustrates that more plainly than the incarcerated firefighter funding gap: California spends an average of $80,000 to incarcerate one person, the largest portion of that money going to security. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars to incarcerate the very people who work on the fire lines for paltry wages.
Couloute says that qualified, job-ready individuals are likely to be turned away for being Black, Latino, or for having prior convictions. “When they get out, formerly incarcerated Black people have the highest rates of unemployment, and they face the highest rates of homelessness.” It’s not just racism or prejudice against those with convictions, but the dual imposition of criminalization and racialization of Black and Latino people that make it challenging to find work after returning home, Couloute says.
Francis Lopez worked two seasons as an incarcerated wildland firefighter, but when he paroled to Fresno, California, he couldn’t find work. “I wanted to be a firefighter,” Lopez says. He emailed and called a local fire department for information about employment opportunities, but no one ever answered the phone. He thought to himself, “I don’t have time to sit around and dwell on this. My life required immediate attention.” So he explored other options.
“It’s kind of a slap in the face,” Lopez says. “If you apply for a city firefighter job, it’s a definite ‘no.’” Though Lopez received emergency response and CPR training, he can’t use those skills either, because local municipalities send the message that “we don’t want to see you in our communities.”
Couloute notes that some research has found that if people indicate that they have a criminal conviction, they’re half as likely to get a callback from employers. To put an even finer point on it, Couloute says that White people with criminal records are more likely to get a callback than Black people without criminal records. “Trying to navigate all of that is extremely difficult, and it’s a constant uphill battle,” Couloute says.
For what it’s worth, McMorrow says, “Formerly incarcerated firefighters are eligible to apply for firefighting jobs with CAL FIRE,” and that the “training they receive as incarcerated firefighters gives them work experience and skills needed to be qualified to apply as a firefighter.” However, she wasn’t able to say exactly how many formerly incarcerated people CAL FIRE has hired after receiving training while incarcerated.
One legislative initiative that might help people who have been incarcerated navigate the maze is AB-2147, which will theoretically make it easier for firefighters to become employed by expunging their records. On September 11, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law. In a joint press release, Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes said, “Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around.”
Anthony Bracy, the employment coordinator for FFRP says that while the law is a start, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll get that emergency medical technician certification. Nor is it a guarantee of employment, or even that prejudice won’t affect hiring processes. “Great,” he says. “Now your past doesn’t have to hamper you as much. It’s just maybe one less hurdle you have to deal with.”
Building an Better System
From Smith’s perspective, without a formalized system for navigating the employment process as someone with a previous conviction, hundreds, even thousands, of potential firefighters are forced out of their jobs of choice for no reason other than employer prejudice.
“Ultimately we just believed that if it’s not there, we will create it,” Smith says.
Given that employer prejudices weren’t changing, Smith and Ramey decided to change the system instead. They created an intermediary between firefighters who were previously incarcerated and CAL FIRE. At first, there wasn’t broad support among some fire conservation camps, but Smith and Ramey developed relationships with officials higher up in CAL FIRE and CDCR who backed Smith and Ramey, so they could give presentations to incarcerated firefighters.
FFRP’s strategy is to recruit and train people who were shut out from traditional hiring processes and to do the work that other state agencies aren’t keen to take on. The organization offers certification programs, emergency medical training programs, resume-building support, and advice on how to apply to different jobs.
Bracy says that his role, and a large part of what FFRP does, is encouraging applicants to visualize themselves in the role they want. He acknowledges that this can be difficult for people who have to work a lot harder than most others to secure well-paying jobs, but says “nothing is gonna be handed to you.” He tells FFRP recruits, “If you really want to do something, you will do it. No matter what obstacles or hurdles you have to overcome, you’ll get it done.”
In addition to leading in recruitment and training, FFRP is also demonstrating creative solutions to ensure work for firefighters outside of fire season. Smith says that FFRP built its own wildland fire academy to train recruits in the field. When there isn’t work on the fire line, FFRP subsidizes work crews to complete other forestry projects or to thin the forest in what’s called “fuel reduction.” FFRP, in other words, is a one-stop shop for training and employing firefighters, with specialization in serving those excluded and scrutinized by the dominant systems.
In the five years since the founding of the Fire And Forestry Recruitment Program, the organization has trained 107 people as wildland firefighters and helped them find employment. Smith says that about 80 of those individuals were formerly incarcerated. “We’re really showing by doing. FFRP is here to lead the charge.”
The organization is both building a model that can last, as well as one that works faster than politics. Sure, the state’s new law will make it easier for those to receive EMT certification, but political systems can’t offer direct support, guidance, or even jobs.
Going forward, Smith wants to see FFRP expand its efforts statewide, he says, “We’re out here trying to change the whole system.”