Creating a Post-Release Career Pathway for Incarcerated Firefighters

Feb 14, 2022 | Michelson Center for Public Policy, News, Stories

Spurred by devastating wildfires and a shortage of qualified firefighters, California is creating a pathway for incarcerated firefighters to continue their career post release.

To fight wildfires, California depends on incarcerated labor, who make up more than 30 percent of the state’s wildland firefighting crews. Despite their experience working the front lines, when these men and women return home from prison, continuing their career as firefighters is a difficult prospect.

Their experience and credentials are not being recognized and they are often not given the documentation for the certification training they completed in the fire camps.

AB 1908, authored by Assemblymember Brian Maienschein (D-San Diego), would allow incarcerated firefighters to obtain the necessary training certifications and proof of work experience that can improve their employment prospects upon release.

“Everyone who takes on the courageous work of fire service deserves recognition,” Maienschein said. “Incarcerated individuals rehabilitating back into society is difficult enough. Providing those who participated in the California Conservation Camp program with firefighter certificates will help guide them to the right path once they are released.”

Gary K. Michelson, M.D., founder and co-chair of Michelson Philanthropies and the Michelson Center for Public Policy, has joined a growing coalition working to provide a career pathway and a fresh start for incarcerated firefighters.

“At a time when our state is facing unprecedented wildfires and fire staff shortages, incarcerated firefighters are putting themselves in harm’s way to provide an invaluable service to our society,” Dr. Michelson said. “To ignore the countless hours of training, field experience, and service on the perilous frontlines – and deny them a hard-earned pathway to certification and a meaningful career – is unduly harsh and discriminatory. Not only does this fly in the face of the notion that people can ‘pay their debt to society’ and return to contribute to their communities, it is also incredibly shortsighted given California’s dire need for trained, experienced, and courageous professionals willing to risk their lives to protect us.”

“This bill is a great stepping stone to allow formerly incarcerated people to transition professionally into the wildfire sector.”

—Brandon Smith, Executive Director of the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program

The bill, co-sponsored by the Michelson Center for Public Policy, the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, and Social Compassion in Legislation, will ensure that individuals who successfully completed training in the California Conservation Camp program as an incarcerated individual hand crewmember or as a member of a county incarcerated individual hand crew are eligible for a firefighter certificate provided by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In order to obtain the firefighter certificate, the individuals will have to be of minimum custody and they are ineligible if convicted of sexual offenses, arson, or have a history of escape using force or violence.

The bill comes at a time of dire need.

Recently California has experienced more frequent wildland fires that caused historic levels of loss of life, property, and ecological systems. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, over 2.5 million acres burned in 2021, damaging or destroying over 3,600 buildings and killing 3 people.

Last year, only half of U.S. Forest Service fire engines in the California region were fully staffed and able to run seven days a week, according to the agency’s latest records, as reported by Pew Trusts.

Despite studies showing that employment reduces recidivism, formerly incarcerated individuals face a 27% unemployment rate, as reported by the Prison Policy Institute.

“This bill is a great stepping stone to allow formerly incarcerated people to transition professionally into the wildfire sector,” shared Brandon Smith, the Executive Director of FFRP, a group training wildland firefighters in and out of prison. “It is only right that the credentials and experience received while incarcerated be recognized by fire agencies as these individuals push for gainful employment.”