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From Jailhouse to Firehouse: California’s AB2147 Pros And Cons for Inmate Firefighters
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From Jailhouse to Firehouse: California’s AB2147 Pros And Cons for Inmate Firefighters

This year, California suffered its most destructive fire season ever. Over four million acres burned, but the fight to contain the flames is far from over. To meet the extraordinary demand for firefighters, California tapped into its largest pool of able-bodied people—its prisons.

Over 1,200 prisoners have been sent to the frontlines this year. The inmate-firefighters are easy to spot: “Prisoner CDCR” is printed on their bright orange uniforms. Armed with axes, chainsaws, and shovels, they perform life-saving work as part of the California Conservation Camp, or “Fire Camp” program. But despite honorable service at Fire Camp, inmates often struggle to find jobs as professional firefighters after serving their time. This summer, California Governor Gavin Newsom sought to change that by signing AB2147.

Firefighting jobs are among the most desirable—and competitive—career opportunities for released inmates. But for many, the goal is just a dream. California fire departments require applicants to earn Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification before employment. However, most ex-felons are denied EMT qualification as a matter of policy. For some felony convictions, applicants must wait 10 years from the date of conviction before they may become EMTs. For other convictions, the ban is for life.

At first glance, the ban exists to protect the public. Obviously, EMT licensing authorities hope to prevent future crimes by excluding applicants with prior convictions. However, a deeper look reveals that the ban hinders public safety. 

Excluding inmates from gainful employment has been proven to increase recidivism rates. Attorney and criminal justice expert, Jemima Galan, observed “Criminally convicted persons. . . are often left with minimal options for employment, creating an environment where they are in many ways compelled or pressured to re-offend.” Thus, the practice of preventing ex-prisoners from receiving EMT certification (and consequently, preventing them from getting jobs) increases the likelihood they will re-offend. For this reason alone, California was wise to offer relief in the form of felony expungement. But there remains ample room for improvement.

The premise of AB2147 is simple: If felony convictions prevent inmates from getting EMT certified, why not simply remove the convictions? AB2147 does precisely that—released inmate firefighters are now eligible to expunge certain enumerated convictions. This is a quantum leap forward. With EMT licenses and felony expungements secured, former inmate firefighters can finally satisfy most fire departments’ initial screening requirements.

But unfortunately, expungement alone does not guarantee job offers—even for the most qualified candidates. For many, their journey came to an abrupt halt during the job interview.

These two issues plague the otherwise well-written AB2147. First, expungement does not erase an applicant’s incarceration record, which is often both the source of their firefighting experience and the basis of the discrimination they face. Thus, ex-felons cannot discuss their previous firefighting experience on their applications without exposing themselves to prejudice. The second problem has to do with the unique needs of incarcerated immigrants. Both issues can be fixed with proper reforms, I discuss both in turn below.

AB2147 presumes expungement will put applicants on a level playing field. But the law fails to address the prejudice ex-felons face during employment considerations. As one poll found, “[O]f over 3,000 employers in four metropolitan areas, nearly 20% of employers reported that they would ‘definitely not’ hire an applicant with a criminal record, and 42% indicated they would ‘probably not’ do so.” AB2147 can expunge a conviction record, but it cannot expunge the years spent incarcerated in Fire Camp. But there is no reason prior firefighting experience should count against ex-prisoners who apply for firefighting jobs. Instead, such experiences ought to move their application to the top of the pile. After all, firefighters routinely respond to life-or-death emergencies. In such circumstances, experience matters.

That is why I urged lawmakers to adopt the Firefighter-Inmate Rehab Evaluation Score (FIRE Score) system earlier this year. The FIRE Score evaluates inmates’ performance in fire camps based on three criteria: satisfactory service, leadership, and exceptional merit. This point-based system solves the shortcomings of AB2147. The FIRE Score system allows inmates to embrace their Fire Camp experience and be rewarded for it. Yes, they have served time, but they have also demonstrated excellent character, courage, and trustworthiness. Thus, inmates who earn high FIRE Scores would be viewed not with suspicion, but rather, with respect.

For some inmates, serving their sentences is only half the battle. Immigrants—especially refugees—face extreme uncertainty upon release. One report recently noted, “[AB2147] does not, however, stop California from sending incarcerated firefighters to ICE—and does not protect them from deportation.” Rather than a fresh start, California’s immigrant-inmates face immediate transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Often, the transfer is followed by prolonged incarceration and eventual deportation. 

Former inmate-firefighter, Kao Saelee, is one of many who have suffered under California’s current policy. Saelee arrived in the United States as a refugee fleeing war and persecution in Laos. Desperate to make ends meet, Saelee was caught up in an armed robbery during his teen years. He has since served 22 years in state prison. During that time, he spent two seasons battling wildfires at Fire Camp. Despite his long prison term, Saelee was hopeful about his future. His good service record on the fire crew qualified him for a professional firefighting job. Combined with the expungement relief offered by AB2147, Saelee looked forward to a career in public service with good pay and benefits. But upon his release, Saelee was immediately detained by ICE. As of the writing of this article, he has no idea when or where he will be released. The Guardian reported: 

Saelee said he couldn’t imagine returning to a country where he has no memories: ‘It would be like the first time I’m walking into the prison system—scared and just lost,’ he said. ‘If I do get deported, it’s like getting sentenced again, for life.’

People like Kao Saelee deserve better. California ought to recognize the sacrifice immigrant inmates make when they sign up for Fire Camp. Much like how military service can lead to citizenship, fire-fighting service should lead to amnesty and naturalization. For now, Governor Newsom has indicated that California will continue cooperating with federal immigration officers. For the time being, people like Saelee have no alternative but to anxiously await reforms. 

In the meantime, California must find an equitable solution for incarcerated firefighters with immigration concerns. Upon completion of a satisfactory fire service, amnesty is the best solution.

AB2147 is an important step forward. Inmate-firefighters can finally obtain expungements, thus empowering them to earn EMT licenses (and subsequently, fire department jobs). But the law fails to address the effects of employment discrimination. It also fails to provide relief for incarcerated immigrants and refugees. The next step is to build upon AB2147 by offering additional protections for ex-prisoners who serve honorably in Fire Camp.

Inmate firefighters put their lives on the line in service to the public. California ought to return the favor by granting them a fresh start.

 

Ryan Stygar is a former firefighter and recent law school graduate. In addition to legal work, he also writes fun and educational novels for young readers. Ryan graduated Magna Cum Laude from California Western School of Law in San Diego, California.

 

Suggested Citation: Ryan Stygar, From Jailhouse to Firehouse: California’s AB2147 Pros And Cons for Inmate Firefighters, JURIST – Professional Commentary, October 16th, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/10/ryan-stygar-firefighter-california/.


This article was prepared for publication by Vishwajeet Deshmukh, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org.


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