The Controversy Surrounding California’s Inmate Firefighter Program

Vivi Kaufman

California wildfires have stretched across the west coast, demolishing over four million acres of land. As a result, there has been an upsurge in demand for firefighters, notably in California amongst other states. California has long relied on inmate firefighters to fill their ranks, but the recent nation-wide release of prisoners due to the coronavirus pandemic has posed a challenge to the state’s priorities and has led many to question the morality of prison labor amidst a pandemic. 

As of October 5th, over 16,000 firefighters have been sent out to contain the blaze. Before the pandemic, California employed 43 percent of its responders through the Conservation Camp Program (CCP), which is a program that guides inmates through entry-level firefighter training. These inmates aided professional firemen in not only firefighting but landscape maintenance and community service projects in nearby national parks. 

The program has been an asset not only to California’s firefighting force but to many of the prisoners who participate. According to an interview by TIME Magazine, the prisoners who work in these fire camps gain valuable skills during their time working in fire camps. Brandon Smith, a former CCP Firefighter, felt that “to some extent, the [fire] camp program saved my life. It gave me a sense of work ethic, ties to the community, and another sense of worth”. In another interview from the New York Times, former inmate Francis Lopez commented that firefighters received additional benefits, including much more time outdoors, better food, and less racial divides within social groups. However, once the coronavirus pandemic reached prisons, local officials began to release prisoners at unprecedented rates, sending a jolt through California’s firefighting efforts in the peak of their wildfire season. 

While the majority of citizens, including California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, have pushed for an immediate reduction in the state’s prison population, some have pushed back. Former correction officer Mike Hampton argued, “the inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires instead of being released early.” His reasoning highlights just how dependent  California is on prison labor. The state’s only immediate options are to expose thousands of prisoners and professional firefighters to COVID-19 while saving lives and property from these deadly fires, or release prisoners, reducing their Coronavirus risk but leaving the firefighting force understaffed and overworked. Hampton believes “[it isn’t justified] to release all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on.”

Amika Motta, a former firehouse engineer, referenced a similar situation back in 2014 with Kamala Harris, arguing that keeping prisoners in prison solely for labor is immoral. Harris argued against the release of lower-level minimum-security prisoners because she wanted to keep California’s fire force staffed, all while paying inmates less than two dollars an hour. Motta calls her policy “horrifying”, and points out that inmates were “deemed safe enough to be working in the community, and safe enough to go into people’s homes…but were retained to a job that [CAL Fire] didn’t want to pay anyone else to do”. Rasheed Lockheart, another former inmate firefighter, echoes Motta’s point: “You are only as valuable as what you save the state. Not in the work that you do or the person you are. It’s a slap in the face”. Other former inmates are more focused on the limitations after prison that keep former inmate firefighters from entering the workforce. Despite their extensive training and experience, former inmates need to wait seven to ten years after their release to be considered to receive an EMT license in California. 

Governor Newsom has heard some of the complaints, and on September 11th, he signed legislation that would allow inmate firefighters to get their records expunged and waive their parole. “Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter,” he stated in a tweet. He added that this legislation doesn’t apply to people who commit violent felonies or sexual crimes. 

Newson’s legislation is a step in the right direction, but it was a decision that should have been made decades ago. COVID-19 has not created California’s prison labor issues, but rather, illuminated them. There is a growing consensus to shrink the state’s prison labor companies and instead expand on public investment in firefighting. 

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