Prisoners have played a role in firefighting since 1915 when the first “Conservation Camps” trained incarcerated firefighters with the backing of the Department of Forestry. Especially in the realm of fighting wildfires, incarcerated individuals have in recent years provided low-cost labor amid the dangerous environment of a spreading wildfire.
The numbers of incarcerated persons in the United States expanded threefold during the “War on Crime,” which increased the pool of available prisoners and their role in firefighting. Incarcerated firefighters work at least 3 million hours per year to protect homes and cities.
So-called “inmate crews” are trained and available to respond to wildfires and other emergencies, such as floods and search-and-rescue. In the case of wildfires, prisoners clear brush, cut out roots, conduct controlled burns and perform any other duties of wildland firefighters.
Concerns of incarcerated firefighters
The use of incarcerated firefighters has been disrupted recently by several factors. In the wake of COVID-19, many prisoners were released to slow the spread of the virus, thus providing a smaller pool from which to recruit firefighters. Early release of prisoners decreased – by about a third – the laborers the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL-FIRE) could use to tackle the wildfire season.The use of incarcerated firefighters has been disrupted recently by several factors
Concerns have also been expressed about the fairness, from a human rights perspective, of prisoners putting their lives on the line for low pay, which ranges from $2.90 to $5.12 per day.
Finally, former prisoners who have firefighting experience are finding it difficult to re-enter the outside workforce because their previous criminal conviction makes them less likely to get a callback from a potential employer. It is hard for former prisoners to get a job, even in a time of labor shortages that threaten the supply of adequate personnel to respond to the current wildfire season in California.
Fire and Forestry Recruitment Program
FFRP builds bridges between formerly incarcerated wildland firefighters and California’s forestry fire labor forceThe Fire and Forestry Recruitment Program (FFRP) was founded by Brandon Smith and Royal Ramey, both formerly incarcerated firefighters, to help train firefighters and find them employment. The organization works with trained firefighters inside and outside the criminal justice system who have the skills and experience to help address California’s wildfires.
FFRP builds bridges between formerly incarcerated wildland firefighters and California’s forestry fire labor force, supporting individuals’ transition into professional fire and fuel reduction work. Finally, FFRP works with the State of California and local community partners to provide support and additional services to individuals currently and formerly experiencing incarceration and participating in Fire Camps.
Laws to help incarcerated firefighters
Participation in firefighting has given more than one incarcerated person a renewed sense of purpose. Firefighting has provided a “pivot” to recenter lives, offering a new outlook for people who were previously discounted and disregarded.Additional help for formerly incarcerated firefighters is available from California legislative initiative AB-2147
Additional help for formerly incarcerated firefighters is available from California legislative initiative AB-2147, which enables the expunging of prison records and a pathway to a new life. The law creates a new Penal Code section 1203.4b, designed to make it easier for inmates trained in firefighting in the Conservation Camp Program or on a county hand crew to gain employment as professional firefighters after release.
In partnership with CAL-FIRE, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operates 44 minimum security Conservation Camps, where inmates who volunteer for the program receive the same entry-level training as CAL-FIRE’s seasonal firefighters and ongoing training during their time in the program. Inmate firefighters in the Conservation Camp program have assisted in fighting the Pocket, Tubbs, Atlas, Camp, and Kincade fires.
Penal Code section 1203.4b, which took effect January 1, 2021, allows certain persons with criminal convictions who have been released from custody to file a petition for relief in court. If the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or the appropriate county authority certifies the defendant has successfully completed the firefighting program, the court may, at its discretion and in the interests of justice, issue an order expunging the conviction, with certain restrictions.