(TNS) - Denise Boiselle did not sleep the night the Valley fire erupted a few hundred yards from her home in Jamul. It was the Saturday before Labor Day, and she lay awake all night on her porch and into the predawn hours Sunday watching and listening as firefighters fought the flames.
"They were like a well-oiled machine, I was so impressed with them," Boiselle recalled as she described seeing their silhouettes against the tall flames. "They went right up to the fire. It was amazing."
Each night for the next week, Boiselle stayed awake until dawn, watching and listening as the firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Their orange protective gear, she knew, set them apart as California's incarcerated inmate crews.
She credited those men and women with saving her home.
A little more than a week earlier, legislators had passed Assembly Bill 2147, which would allow inmates who serve in prison fire camps to expunge their records once released, removing a major obstacle standing in the way of them finding employment. On Sept. 11, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill, calling it "legislation (that) rights a historic wrong and recognizes the sacrifice of thousands of incarcerated people who have helped battle wildfires in our state."
In California, where the inmate crews earn about $2 a day, plus $1 an hour while fighting active fires, prospects are even slimmer for former inmates who hope to find full-time firefighting employment after release because many jobs require certification as an Emergency Medical Technician — which requires a clean criminal record.
The bill signed by Newsom could be monumental in removing that barrier, but some prisoner reentry experts argue that it may not be effective because even with a clean record, employers will be able to figure out whether an applicant has served on an inmate fire crew.
Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes, the San Bernardino Democrat who authored the bill, said the inmate crews are "hailed as heroes ... (while) standing shoulder to shoulder with our professional firefighters," but have nearly all opportunities closed to them once released.
"The inequity in that did not seem right," Gómez Reyes said in an interview last month. "What they're volunteering to do is very dangerous. What better proof of rehabilitation is there than being willing to put their lives on the line for people they've never met?"
But one expert who studies prisoner reentry said the law sounds too complicated, layering new regulations on top of old ones instead of removing them entirely. Another argued that for maximum benefit, the expungements should be automatic upon release, instead of leaving it up to each individual, and said removing formal barriers to employment might do little to remove the informal barriers faced by ex-inmates.
California's incarcerated firefighters
When California's work force was depleted during World War II, the state turned to inmates to help battle wildfires, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The first permanent fire camp was established in 1946 in Rainbow, in rural North County, and later converted to the first all-female camp in 1983.
Technically known as conservation camps, there are now 43 in 27 counties across the state. They're operated by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Cal Fire. The five camps located in Los Angeles County are jointly operated by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and open to the county's jail inmates, unlike other camps in California, which are only open to state prisoners.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the state would typically house roughly 3,000 men, women and juvenile offenders at the minimum security camps. Roughly two-thirds are trained and qualified to fight fires, while the others act in support roles.
Because of expedited and natural releases during the pandemic, as of Sept. 14 there were 1,845 incarcerated individuals housed at conservation camps, 1,263 of whom were trained firefighters.
Offenders imprisoned for serious charges, such as murder, are not eligible to participate in the volunteer program. Certain other crimes like sexual offenses, arson and a history of escape also automatically disqualify candidates. Participants must be within five years of finishing their sentence, and get two days off their custody term for every one day they serve at a camp.
"Every inmate who participates is fully vetted through CDCR," Gómez Reyes said. "They go through this rigorous training. They go out and do the job. It isn't an easy process, and not everyone is willing to put their life on the line."
When inmate crews are not battling wildfires, they're put to work on conservation and fuel management projects. When there are fires to fight, they are split into hand crews whose primary job is to construct fire lines by removing vegetation from the path of advancing flames. It's strenuous work that requires chainsaws, shovels, axes and other hand tools.
In a proposal for the creation of a training center for paroled firefighters, state officials wrote that the inmate crews "are one of the state's most valuable resources, capable of reaching remote and rugged terrain not accessible by other fire suppression resources," and their mop-up work is "critical in the prevention" of hot spots.
As of last week, 109 hand crews from the prison camps were deployed to 11 fires around the state, including the Valley fire.
"After the fire is completely extinguished, fire crews are utilized to rehabilitate the burned land, create water bars to prevent erosion, help reseed the watershed, and undertake other erosion control measures," state officials wrote in the proposal.
Some previously incarcerated individuals say the few dollars they make per day — saving taxpayers about $100 million a year — is a fortune compared to the cents-per-day jobs available inside prison walls, though many progressive criminal justice reform activists still compare the firefighting program to slave labor.
Though AB 2147 appears to be the most significant step yet, there have been several attempts by lawmakers and others over the past several years to address the problem of scant job prospects for formerly incarcerated firefighters.
Before getting her most recent legislation passed, Gómez Reyes had introduced bills in 2018 and 2019 aimed at studying and addressing the issue. The 2018 bill, which passed, aimed to collect data from Emergency Medical Technician boards about denial rates for EMT certification applicants with criminal records.
Sacramento lawmakers enacted two other bills in 2018 that chipped away at the barriers to employment, including one that limited the ability of state licensing boards to deny occupational licenses based on old criminal convictions not related to the occupation in question. And a 2018 omnibus bill included an item permitting Cal Fire to issue Emergency Medical Responder certifications to certain qualified conservation camp graduates.
That certification was aimed at helping formerly incarcerated inmates qualify for the firefighting jobs that do not require full EMT certification, including many jobs with Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service.
Then there is the Ventura Training Center, an accredited Cal Fire training center that serves only formerly incarcerated firefighters who are recently released from prison and on parole.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown proposed the center, which began operating in 2018 and is run by Cal Fire, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the California Conservation Corps and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Located in the middle of sprawling farmland in Camarillo, about halfway between Ventura and Thousand Oaks, the 18-month training and reentry program is set up at one of the state's former conservation camps.
It's first cohort of 20 trainees started at the center in October 2018 and graduated in April, a few months after the fourth cohort began training. The program is designed to accommodate up to 80 trainees when all four classes are full.
"In California and in the nation, but especially here where we have a unique need for it, there is nothing else like it," Nicholas Reiner, a spokesman for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, told the Union-Tribune earlier this year.
In 2019, a Los Angeles County supervisor proposed creating a similar training program for county jail inmates who serve in the Los Angeles-area camps.
The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program is a nonprofit similar to the Ventura Training Center, but on a smaller scale. It was created in 2014 by Brandon Smith and Royal Ramey, who met while fighting fires together in a prison camp.
Upon release, both were able to navigate a daunting system to become full-time professional firefighters. But they knew they were the exceptions to the rule, and they wanted to share what they'd learned. Both made the decision to quit full-time firefighting, and instead focus on helping other formerly incarcerated inmates make the same transition they made.
"I had to navigate my own path, with Ramey, but I had a support system; I had a job, had a family, had a wife and kids — a lot of people don't have that support system," Smith said. "Now we try to be that support system."
Ramey said it was difficult to leave his job with Cal Fire, but that "I'm a man who thinks about what I'll leave in this world."
Smith said this week that before the pandemic, The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program had an 11-person group of conservation camp graduates receiving classroom and online instruction and field training. By mid-September, Smith said, eight of the 11 had found wildland firefighting jobs and were deployed across the state.
Will AB 2147 be effective?
The day Newsom signed AB 2147 into law, Reps. Barbara Lee and Adam Schiff, both California Democrats, were among those who praised the legislation.
"It is severely unjust to expect incarcerated individuals to risk their lives to protect our community from dangerous wildfires without any compensation or hope for employment after they've served their time," Lee wrote on Twitter. "This is long overdue."
Smith is taking a wait-and-see approach. He said he's happy the legislation passed, saying that "for the first time, the state is saying we deserve to work in this space."
But he's also wary that the process of seeking an expungement might become too long and complicated — like what he said happened with those seeking to clear marijuana convictions from their records under the state law that legalized cannabis.
Smith also pointed out that even with a technically clean record, an ex-inmate would give away their incarceration history when listing their conservation camp experience on a job application. He also questioned whether an expungement would cover an individual's entire criminal history, or just the charges that got them sent to prison before ending up at a conservation camp.
A spokesman for Gómez Reyes said "we believe that it would allow the entire record to be expunged if the judge allows it."
Texas A&M associate professor Jennifer Doleac is an economist who studies crime and discrimination with an emphasis on prisoner reentry. She wrote in an email that in AB 2147, "lawmakers seem to be trying to correct a problem with existing regulations by layering another regulation on top of it."
Doleac said the law seems inefficient.
"The proposed legislation would limit expungement to those who have completed firefighting training while incarcerated, but it seems just as easy to simply give fire departments leeway to hire those candidates who are most qualified, without regard to their criminal records," Doleac wrote.
Heather Harris, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the most interesting question might turn out to be whether firefighting agencies "are going to be willing to hire" the formerly incarcerated firefighters.
AB 2147 has the potential "to remove the formal barrier," Harris said. "Whether it can remove the informal barriers remains to be seen."
Harris co-authored a book with UC Berkeley sociology professor David J. Harding that studied the lives of 1,300 young adults in Michigan after they were released from prisons. They found there were many factors that contributed to successful reentry into life outside prison, including residential stability, education and employment that pays well and is rewarding.
Harding said that was one point in favor of formerly incarcerated individuals seeking out a firefighting career — it's "dangerous and grueling, but does have this really meaningful component, gives people a sense of identity and pays reasonably well."
In a joint interview, Harris and Harding said that research has shown that even when expungement is an option, many formerly incarcerated individuals don't seek it out, and fewer still are able to successfully expunge their records, in part because it can be a complicated and expensive process.
Harding said that looking at the big picture, "we spend a lot of time and money" getting people into the prison system, "but we haven't set up a whole lot of institutions to help people transition out."
Institutional structure, and faith in God, were what Jason Moyer said he needed to succeed outside of prison. The 37-year-old Santee resident had been in and out of custody for years when he ended up at a conservation camp and found his calling.
Upon being released from the camp and placed on parole, he earned a coveted spot at the Ventura Training Center.
"They bed you, they feed you, they discipline you," Moyer said recently from Northern California, where he and others from the training center were helping battle the River and Creek fires. "The Ventura Training Center gives you an anchor point ... it gives you a first stepping stone."
Moyer spoke in an interview earlier this year of his faith, of giving his life to God. He called the opportunity to attend the Ventura Training Center "a miracle," considering the actions that landed him several stints in prison.
Moyer is now a squad leader among his fellow trainees, and during downtime takes classes from Ventura Community College, with a goal toward earning a fire science degree. He's earning every firefighting and medical certification he can, including those required to one day earn an Emergency Medical Technician license, even though his criminal record disqualifies him for now.
"My mom and my sister never gave up on me, and are truly proud of me," Moyer said. "I see it in their eyes now."
Shortly after Newsom signed the bill, Moyer's battalion chief called him aside. The two had discussed the AB 2147 legislation before, and Moyer had previously been researching ways he might clear his record, including seeking a pardon from the governor.
The battalion chief asked Moyer if he'd heard the news. He hadn't, but when he learned the bill was signed into law, he had one response.
"Miracles do come true," he said.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.