[This is Part II in our series of Beyond the Burn and how California’s climate change-induced fire threats present a replicable opportunity for economic growth and social justice. If you haven’t read the first installment, you can find it here]
I ended the first installment in this series with a battle cry for cooperation. My desire is for relevant agencies to mobilize in a joint effort to mitigate the devastation of California’s wildfires increased by global warming. In this piece, I aim to shine a light on who bears the most blistering effects of the “burn,” and how current policies denigrate society as a whole.
Our prisons, long the largest in the world per capita, represent a monumental waste of human potential and a latent resource similar to the trees that threaten to burn our state down to the ground. The situation has reached the breaking point, marked by a 19-day nationwide prisoner strike. How can we, as Americans, claim to offer an equitable system of justice when inmates serve time and are released, only to be shunned from the democratic process and denied opportunities to reintegrate into the working world?
On August 9th, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman interviewed Romarilyn Ralston, a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners–LA Chapter, and the program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State University, Fullerton. Also interviewed was Deirdre Wilson, former program coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Ms. Ralston explains the main policy flaw: “The firefighter training that you receive while you are incarcerated, you don’t get enough of the training needed to apply to CAL FIRE. Because of licensing, incarcerated firefighters or folks with a criminal record, once they are released, are not able to get an EMT license, and that’s one of the critical pieces to applying for these jobs post-release.”
More recently, Goodman traveled to the Delta Conservation Camp to interview both correctional officers and inmate firefighters who recently returned from the Snell Fire near Middletown. Sgt. Steven Reeder confirmed that the inmate firefighters get the toughest jobs: “Usually it is cutting line where a dozer cannot go. So they get the toughest assignments in the worst conditions, 110 degrees in the middle of the sun, wearing two layers of clothing, carrying 40 pounds of gear. And then they have to carry all their food and water for a 24-hour shift, and then swing a tool the whole time.”
Capt. Tracy Snyder echoed that sentiment: “They do an excellent job for the state of California. When you see the devastation in Santa Rosa and Napa last year, and Montecito down in Southern California with the Thomas Fire, these guys, as the sergeant, said, they are the backbone. They do a great job. A great job. And I appreciate them.”
In a separate segment, Goodman interviewed Amika Mota, who made just 53 cents/hour as an inmate firefighter where she was stationed at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, California. She not only fought wildfires but responded to fires inside the institution and within a 30-mile radius of the prison. The scope of her training was as complete as any certified professional. She handled structural and vehicle fires, car accidents and medical calls, and rescued family members of correctional personnel. She now serves as the Director of Prison Reentry at the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco.
I encourage everyone to watch each of Goodman’s three interviews, which features numerous statements concerning inmates who volunteer for the front lines in order to hasten a return to their families. They may receive shortened sentences for their courage and initiative but inmate firefighters should also be rewarded with an honest day’s work.
Our prison value system of indefinite punishment for incarcerated and released inmates has become a liability. California currently spends approximately $75,000 annually per inmate to incarcerate 131,260 adults, for a total cost of over $11 billion. If all 2,600 active inmate firefighters were gainfully employed, the net savings would be $2.6 million, equal to 2,600 firefighters x $1,000 savings between the per capita cost of incarceration, and the annual mean wage of $74,000 a certified firefighter is paid. If we’re to win this massive environmental fight we must stop squandering skilled human resources.
Inmates putting their lives on the line to save our communities deserve a second chance. Also, consider the multiplier effect of a program that actually rehabilitates inmates, delivers an important service to society, and also provides them a living wage. Ms. Ralston adds “When you are released, there are so many barriers to employment because you have a criminal record. If we can use the experience of incarcerated firefighters to get those jobs on the outside, it is just good governance for California.”
Are you listening, Gov. Brown? Good governance for California means adopting socially responsible and sustainable policies to benefit society as a whole. Approximately $26 million has been proposed to create a certification program that would help incarcerated firefighters receive the training they need. A similar program could benefit the logging and timber industries if more funding was made available. But talk is cheap and we need action.
Ms. Ralston and I are in agreement as we end this two-part series: “[T]hese fires are just going to continue, and with global warming, they’re going to continue to get worse. So if we’re going to use incarcerated firefighter labor to fight fires, we need to respect their expertise once they are released and give them jobs. Because the collateral consequences of not doing that is California going up in smoke, and so we can’t afford that.”