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  • Andrew Logue

Inmate Hand Crews Fight California's Forest Fires

California has seen thousands of homes destroyed and hundreds of thousands of acres of land consumed by wildfires over the past year. Fighting fires on this scale requires massive manpower and recourse, and one of the most indispensable weapons in the state’s arsenal are Inmate Hand Crews.

These groups of inmates are doing back-breaking work to prevent forest fires and are on the front lines when they do occur. While the work they do for their state is unquestionable, the rising calls for prison reform has caused groups to scrutinize the programs’ low wages and call into question its effectiveness as job training and rehabilitation.

Inmate Hand Crews have been an important part of California’s firefighting infrastructure since World War II, when the war created a shortage of firefighters. Currently 3,100 of the state’s 15,500 wildfire fighters are inmates. They have become an indispensable part of the state’s war on wildfires, a battle that California seems to increasingly be on the losing side of. They were an integral part of the state’s fight against the 2019 Kincade Fire.

Members of hand crews aren’t random or unqualified inmates. In fact, the selection and training processes are quite rigid. They must have shown good behavior while in prison and certain offenses will immediately disqualify an inmate, such as sexual assault and, of course, arson-related crimes. Additionally, an applicant must be physically fit and would receive the same training as seasonal California firefighters.

Becoming a member of an inmate hand crew has appealing benefits to prisoners. Every day working in a hand crew takes two days off of one’s sentence. It allows them to live outdoors in a more natural environment while also receiving pay.

Jason Dixie, a member of the Valley View Conservation Camp crew, said to KQED news: “it’s much better living out in the open doors”. After serving their prison sentence, inmates have the opportunity to work for The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (usually referred to as Cal-Fire), though they traditionally couldn’t work for their local municipal services.

Opportunities like this led to some inmates seeing the program as incredibly positive. Another member of the Valley View Conservation Camp, Christopher Jones, told reporters, “I love what we are doing here. I feel like I’ve found my niche. It has allowed me to pick the direction I want to go”.

However, criticism about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s handling of COVID-19 outbreaks and recent demands for prison reform have caused the program to receive increasing scrutiny.

The CDCR has been criticized heavily for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic within its prisons. Numbers of coronavirus cases in penitentiaries such as the Bay Area’s San Quentin State Prison have been rising rapidly, with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union calling these outbreaks entirely preventable.

The ACLU has given the state of California a failing grade for its handling of coronavirus in its prisons. This criticism has reinvigorated calls for prison reform and has brought into question the conditions faced by hand crews.

The combination of tough conditions and low pay for inmate hand crews has been compared to slavery. The work inmate hand crews are doing is tough and laborious. Inmates complete difficult grunt work to prevent forest fires and while fighting fires shifts can last up to 24 hours. For this work, inmates can be paid as little $2.90 per day.

California firefighters fighting back blazes alongside hand crews earn an average wage of $54,000 per year, while inmate hand crews are earning well below minimum wage. This problem is especially troubling when considering the American prison system’s complicated history with chain gangs — southern states used hard labor as a form of punishment — and its complicated relationship with the 13th Amendment.

Despite members of hand crews having fought fires and helped protect their state for years, becoming a firefighter has traditionally been an uphill battle with an incredibly steep slope for former inmates. One of the stated goals of the corrections system is to prepare prisoners to reenter society through rehabilitation and job training. California’s prions are lacking generally lacking in job training, with hand crews being one of the few exceptions.

However, its effectiveness is hampered by the number of barriers former inmates would face trying to become a firefighter in their local municipality. The majority of counties and cities require one to obtain an Emergency Medical Technician license to become a firefighter, but California reserved the right, until recently, to deny an EMT license to anyone who has two or more felonies, is on parole or probation, or has committed any felonies within the last 10 years. This left Cal Fire as the only remaining option for many inmates.

Work for Cal Fire often sees people returning to similar conditions as they would be working in while in prison. Most former felons get offered entry-level positions, despite their experience, in rural areas far from friends and family. Former inmate Amika Mota wanted to work as a firefighter after being a member of an inmate hand crew. However, the pay offered was low and the work seasonal.

This combined with rarely being able to see her family in the Bay Area led Mota to abandon her ambitions of pursuing a career in firefighting. Members of California Professional Firefighters, a union representing 30,000 members, feel they can easily train firefighters without needing to draw on former felons as an employment pool, Carroll Wills, the union’s communication director, told The San Francisco Chronicle.

Employment opportunities for former inmate hand crew workers have seen recent improvement owing to moves within California’s government. Eloise Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino, introduced a bill in February 2019 that aimed to lift the blanket ban on reformed felons receiving EMT training.

In September this year California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law allowing former members of hand crews to obtain EMT licenses. Bill AB 2147 shows great progress for inmate hand crews’ job prospects, but issues of pay and working conditions are yet to be addressed.


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