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High Risk, Low Pay for California Prisoners Who Fight Fires

by Chad Marks

Since the 1940s, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has maintained a firefighting corps composed of prisoner volunteers. In late 2018, when the Camp and Woolsey fires destroyed the town of Paradise and hundreds of homes in upscale Malibu, over 1,400 prisoners contributed 15 percent of the firefighting manpower to California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

Since 1983, at least six prisoner firefighters have died in the Conservation Camp Program (CCP), including three between 2016 and 2017, when over 16,000 wildfires burned nearly two million acres across the state. Two prisoners were crushed, Shawna Lynn Jones by a falling boulder and Matthew Beck by a 120-foot tree. Jones, 22, was just months away from completing her sentence. Another CCP volunteer, Frank Anaya, sustained a fatal cut to his femoral artery in a chainsaw accident. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.46; June 2004, p.22; Mar. 2001, p.14].

Though no firefighters died battling the two big blazes in 2018, CAL FIRE’s “Green Sheet” report for the second week of November that year listed five firefighters who were treated and released from a burn center on the first day of the Camp fire near Paradise. Two prisoner volunteers were among the five. CAL FIRE deputy chief information officer Scott McLean said the injuries were the most serious suffered that week, with all the rest being “usual sprains [and] strains.”

According to a November 17, 2018 news report, prisoner firefighters are more likely to suffer work-related injuries. Between June 2013 and August 2018, over 1,000 CCP volunteers required hospital care. They were “more than four times as likely, per capita, to incur object-induced injuries, such as cuts, bruises, dislocations and fractures, compared with professional firefighters working on the same fires. Inmates were also more than eight times as likely to be injured after inhaling smoke and particulates compared with other firefighters,” TIME magazine reported. Civilian firefighters were more likely to suffer burns and heat-related maladies.

“Because we’re at a prison camp, they don’t necessarily pay attention to our physical needs as much as they do actual firefighters,” said former prisoner Mathew Trattner, who injured his shoulder while serving 17 months as a CCP volunteer.

Around 4,300 prisoners deemed low security risks volunteer to live in one of the state’s 44 conservation camps, working up to 24 hours without a break in 15-person “hand crews” – that is, they face an oncoming wildfire on the ground armed with hand-held tools, cutting brush and creating fire breaks.

“There’s a lot of fires in California that would not be put out without hand crews,” said Jim Matthias, a CAL FIRE division chief.

In addition to injuries, volunteers face other serious risks. California’s Department of Health reported that 10 prisoners contracted Valley Fever while serving on a fire crew in July 2017. Caused by inhaling fungal spores, the illness can develop into pneumonia or chronic pulmonary infections. Four of the prisoners contracted pneumonia and the illness spread to one prisoner’s lungs, bones, joints and skin, while another had respiratory failure. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.1].

CCP volunteers also face risks when not fighting wildfires. Like other firefighters they sometimes respond to 911 calls to battle house fires or extricate bodies from vehicle collisions. One prisoner volunteer, Anthony Colacino, 33, died during a training hike in April 2018; he was serving a four-year sentence

For their participation in CCP, prisoners are paid $2.00 per day plus $1.00 an hour when fighting an active fire. That is far less than the average $73,860 per year earned by civilian firefighters in California, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Civilian firefighters also receive benefits not available to CCP volunteers, including workers’ compensation and health insurance. If a state-employed firefighter gets hurt, he or she does not have to rely on prison staff for medical treatment.

CDCR officials counter that prisoner firefighters receive real-world job experience and training, as well as time out of their cells and the opportunity to earn time off their sentences – two days off for every day they are in the program. Taxpayers also save around $90 million per year because the prisoners provide three million hours of emergency-response work at deeply discounted wages.

CCP volunteers, however, are usually unable to use their experience and training in firefighting outside of prison. California’s 900-plus local fire departments require employees to have an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) license that is impossible to obtain for recently-released felons, who must wait 10 years to apply after they leave prison.

The CDCR insists that prisoners can transition from CCP to work as professional firefighters. CCP spokesperson Tracy Snyder acknowledged that EMT certification can be “an issue” in getting hired by a municipal fire department, but said there are jobs at the state and federal levels.

“I’ve seen parolees who are working in the camps now, on the CAL FIRE side,” Snyder remarked. “They can get careers if they choose to, and they want to try, and they want to fight for it. It’s not impossible.”

It is, however, difficult. Due to the EMT licensing requirement, career counselor Ellen Hoeft-Edenfield, who works with recently-released prisoners, advises her clients not to consider firefighting jobs.

“I have to tell people right out – I’m sorry, you can’t do this,” she said. “[EMSA agencies] are just turning people away with felonies, period.”

“EMTs often are entering the homes of vulnerable people – often older widows or older widowers who are at high risk for having things stolen from their home,” explained Samuel Stratton, legislative director for the Association of Medical Directors at the California Emergency Medical Services Authority (CEMSA). “We have a large number of children who are not protected when the EMTs show up. There’s a risk that the child would be assaulted or molested. We really have to have someone who is not prone to anger, who is able to control their emotions.”

The policy of the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, which grants EMT certifications, is to deny people who have felony convictions related to assault, property crimes or sexual abuse. But denials can also be based on the nature and seriousness of any other offenses, plus the length of time since they were committed.

After receiving EMT certification, applicants must also apply for a license from a local CEMSA office, which will deny people who have been convicted of a sex-related offense or two or more felonies, as well as anyone on parole or probation or who has been convicted of a felony within the last ten years.

“If it’s a level one (most serious) felony or others, such as felony child abuse, felony spousal abuse, some of the financial felonies, those individuals generally will not be certified as EMTs because they are considered a risk to the health and safety of the community,” Stratton said.

Applicants with misdemeanor records can receive a probationary license, which allows them to work but is automatically revoked if another offense occurs. Stratton said such licenses are most often granted to people convicted of DUI, marijuana possession or low-level assault.

The EMSA Central Registry includes over 62,000 active EMTs in California, just over five percent of whom have a criminal record. Among EMT license applicants, the percentage denied for having a criminal record varies from one percent in Sacramento County since 2014 to 20 percent in Napa County since 2015. Napa County granted 30 percent of its licenses on a probationary basis.

“I would sincerely hope that all these [emergency medical services] agencies are looking at the fires, are looking at the need, looking at how much work needs to be done, and recognizing it’s not going to hurt to hire people with work experience,” said Vinuta Naik, staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center, which advocates for former prisoners.

“If you’re good enough to fight fires while you’re inside, you should be good enough to fight fires when you’re outside,” added Katherine Katcher, executive director of Root & Rebound, a non-profit organization. “They’re doing the life-saving work, they’re earning the skills, and when they get out, they can’t do those jobs.”

In October 2018, outgoing Governor Jerry Brown signed a directive to create an 18-month-long academy run by CAL FIRE, the CDCR and the California Conservation Corps. Held at the Ventura Conservation Camp near Los Angeles, it will provide Firefighter I training to as many as 80 parolees recently released from CCP.

“That’s nothing,” scoffed Naik. “You can help 80 people, but you need to help everybody across the entire state. These are people who need these avenues open to them right now. To give back to the community, and to really build wealth and equality and equity in their lives, we need to open up these jobs,”

In 2018, state Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes introduced a bill to prohibit the denial of EMT licenses based on applicants’ criminal records. The bill ran into opposition from licensing authorities, and when it was eventually passed it simply required better record-keeping on license denials due to criminal convictions. 

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Sources: New York Times, Sacramento Bee, TIME, www.independent.co.uk, www.theaggie.org, www.earther.gizmodo.com

 

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