Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Wildfires Threaten Prisoners in West, While New California Law Helps Prisoner-Firefighters to Continue Work After Release

The new law (designated as AB 2147) allows releasees to petition the court to dismiss their convictions after completing their sentences, which would then allow them to obtain certification as an emergency medical technician (EMT), something most fire departments require to get in the door. It’s not that prisoner-firefighters couldn’t be firefighters after release, but that they couldn’t get the additional certifications to obtain actual employment after release. The state categorically barred anyone with a felony conviction from obtaining an EMT certification. Now that obstacle has been removed for some.

“Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter,” Newsom said as he signed the bill into law.

Assembly member Eloise Gómez Reyes, who sponsored the bill, said the new law has a broader purpose. “Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism,” she said in a statement. “We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around.”

Michael Gebre was a prisoner-firefighter for years in the program before his release. In 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years and during his fourth he learned about the firefighting program. He said it “changed everything” for him.

He wore the bright orange turnout gear that identified prisoner-firefighters and helped at many of the state’s biggest fires, such as the Thomas Fire, the Mendocino Complex Fire, the Ferguson Fire, and the Carr Fire, among others. He says the Camp Fire, his last as a prisoner-firefighter, was the “craziest fire” he’s worked.

Upon his release in 2019, he was recommended by Cal Fire staff for an official position in the fire academy, and he became a fulltime firefighter with Cal Fire. However, he’s limited without an EMT certification. “Without the training, I can’t get certain jobs,” he says. “I can’t do what an EMT does, so it limits me and it would limit me for promotions.” He adds, “I could be of more help, I could be of more assistance.” He said the new law is huge not only for himself but also for the community he serves.

They ‘Risked Their Lives’

“It doesn’t make sense that these people have risked their lives to save Californians,” said Romarilyn Ralston, who leads Project Rebound, a California State University program that supports formerly imprisoned pupils. “They’ve already been doing the job, and they’re barred from the jobs after release. When there’s a fire burning, when your life is in danger and you can’t breathe — you’re not going to do a criminal background check before you let someone save you.”

But law enforcement groups and prosecutors opposed the new bill, saying that the former prisoners pose a danger to the public. This despite the fact that they did the job already and that only minimum-security prisoners can qualify. Sex offenders, murderers, and certain violent felonies are automatically excluded from working as prisoner-firefighters from the outset, and they’re also excluded under the new law.

California has used prisoner-firefighters for more than 80 years. Like regular firefighters, they work alongside, prisoner-firefighters use chainsaws and other tools to battle fires, even sleeping with the crews on the fireground. They are paid about a dollar an hour while fighting fires, and $2 a day when not on the job. They also receive time off their sentence for the work.

State officials like the prisoner-firefighter program because it saves the state about $100 million a year. That would be the cost to hire fulltime firefighters to fill the boots of the prisoner-firefighters. Some disagree with using prisoners to save money. “Every fire season it’s the same,” Ralston said. “The pay is so little, the work is so dangerous.”

“It’s a super imbalanced system; it’s much like the system of slavery,” said Deirdre Wilson, a Master’s student of social work at the University of Southern California. “There’s a reliance on this population, on this cheap labor.”

The state runs 44 prison fire camps with Cal Fire in 27 counties. In a typical year, the state employs around 200 prisoner-firefighter crews. But as of August, the state employed only 113 of those crews, mainly due to the coronavirus. Back in July, Newsom said only 94 of those crews were available.

Thousands of low-risk prisoners were released to ease overcrowding in the prisons during the pandemic. And some of the fire camps were locked down because of COVID-19. This reduced the available prisoner-firefighters to fight the record-breaking wildfires sweeping through the state this year. The state says the total prisoner-firefighters able to work has been reduced by about a third this year.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted just how dependent the state is on its prisoners to fight fires.

In July 2020, deep in the coronavirus pandemic Newsom announced a plan to limit the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons by releasing up to 8,000 non-violent prisoners with less than a year left to serve. Many of California’s prisoner-firefighters met that criteria, but not many were released.

“The inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires,” said Mike Hampton, a former CDCR prison guard who worked for decades at a prison fire camp. “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?

“Inmate fire crews are absolutely imperative to our ability to create hand line[s] and do arduous work on our fires,” says Brice Bennett, a spokesman for Cal Fire. “They are a tremendous resource.”

Prisoner Transfer Woes

The wildfires have also compounded problems for prisoners all along the West Coast. In the early part of September, prisoners from four different Oregon prisons were transferred to other prisons to escape wildfires threatening their prisons. The Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) evacuated Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville to Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras. Coffee Creek is the intake facility for Oregon State prisoners before they are designated to other prisons. It’s also a COVID-19 hotspot in the ODOC.

The prisoners were loaded into school buses at 11 p.m. one night and zip-tied to each other. They were allowed one bag with a change of clothes, a towel, an address book, and shower slides. No commissary or other personal items were allowed. Arriving at Deer Ridge at 4 a.m., they sat on the bus for around three hours without access to a bathroom. They were told to urinate in cups and throw them out the window. About 2,750 prisoners were evacuated from the wildfires, ODOC said.

But the conditions weren’t any better at Deer Ridge, they said. Prisoners from all sorts of facilities were housed together without any consideration of security level. Fights broke out and at least one person was reportedly stabbed, Tara Herivel, an Oregon public defender, said. ODOC sent 1,450 prisoners to the maximum security state penitentiary, which was already at its 2,000-person capacity.

There also wasn’t any consideration by ODOC about the coronavirus, she said. “It’s like COVID doesn’t even exist,” she said. Herivel is leading a team of lawyers who are bringing 180 cases against ODOC for failure to protect prisoners from COVID-19. “These are constitutional claims against the Department of Corrections for failing to protect inmates from COVID,” she said. “Inadequate treatment, inadequate medical care — all conditions of confinement claims. We’re more likely to have some kind of super-spreader event,” she explained.

The conditions were so bad at Deer Ridge that some female prisoners protested. They refused to “bunk up” until they were given food, showers and clean clothes. They said they had gone 24 hours without food and water. One prisoner’s daughter told Oregonian/OregonLive that within five minutes the prisoners were given food and allowed showers.

In California, 26 prisoners died and more than 2,500 prisoners and staff were infected with COVID-19 at San Quentin Prison after infected prisoners were transferred from a Southern California prison to San Quentin in May without being tested.

An ODOC spokesperson addressed the conditions and protests at Deer Ridge and said that “during an emergency, operations do not run as smoothly as normal.” She said prisoners did receive food and medications, but “not on their normal schedule.”

She acknowledged that a crisis team was dispatched to break up the protests at Deer Ridge, but that the incident ended without the use of force.

Prisoners seem to have been delivered from one disaster to another, from coronavirus-infected prisoners to prisons with subhuman conditions, all in an effort to escape from the wildfires. 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login