Inmates are on the front lines of the California forest fires. These inmate firefighters are trained to create a containment line, meaning they’re often out ahead of the fire, clearing brush and trying to stop the flames from spreading, described an October report on San Francisco’s KALW public radio.
They work in crews of about 12, and each has their own role. Drag spoons are the medics, swampers help the captain look at maps, sawyers and polers cut down and remove shrubbery. Michael Draebom, 37, is a pulaski, named after the axe-like tool he uses to chop down stumps and scrape the ground.
“Even though the work is grueling, there are many reasons why people sign up,” noted KALW. One inmate/firefighter says the food in the camps is one reason; it’s a lot better than what they serve in a regular prison. You get good exercise. Plus, you’re not actually in prison.
Another benefit that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation likes to highlight is that this is the best paying job in the prison system.
“While at camp, not working in emergency situations, inmates get paid $2 a day. On the fire line, they get paid $1 an hour as they work alongside and under the leadership of Cal Fire fighters.” (Inmates also often get time off their sentences for good behavior.)
Firefighters earn up to $100 an hour, but one inmate explains that despite the pay difference there is a comaraderie among all of them, and inmates don’t get treated any different than full paid professionals. That is a welcome perk for those who may not have held regular jobs before.
Summer into fall is busy for firefighters. Typically, crews are out fighting fires most of July through October. One inmate explained he fought more than 100 fires in that time, working in shifts of 48 to even 72 hours.
But some inmates say it is all worth it—working hard, being outside and getting thanks for a job well done. When he gets out of prison in a few months, Draebom’s considering becoming a firefighter full time.
According to an opinion piece in the Mercury News (Bay Area), one firefighter, Amika Sergejev, who fought for two-and-a-half years as a firefighter for Cal Fire cannot join a paid fire department because she was convicted of a felony.
She says: “I worked as a firefighter and lead engineer at Cal Fire Station 5 in Madera. Because we were a rural department, our firehouse was not only responsible for responding to fires in the area, we were also first responders rushing to the scenes of traffic accidents and all kinds of local emergencies.
“Our training was first rate. We learned everything from CPR to how to use the Jaws of Life. We learned to run hoses off a fire truck, fight vehicle fires and structure fires, and how to cut a car open and pull out a trapped victim. I did things I never could have imagined I could do.
“But after my time at Station 5 ended, I couldn’t find another job. That’s because my time at the firehouse was actually the final two-and-a-half years of a seven-year prison sentence, which I was fortunate enough to serve as part of a program where prisoners at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla are assigned to live and work at the institution’s local fire station.
“My time at Station 5 helped me in immeasurable ways. It was a welcome respite from a life of incarceration, which really took a mental toll. I credit my time in the station with shifting my mentality. By getting outside the prison gates, I started to remember what it was like to interact with people who were not incarcerated.
“When I got out, I wanted to put the amazing training I had received to use. But I quickly found that my years of training and experience at Chowchilla couldn’t be used on the outside. Because of my conviction, I was ineligible to work for any municipal firehouse in the Bay Area.
“It doesn’t make sense. I received academy-level training and certification as a firefighter, but was legally barred from putting that training to use in my career on the outside. Despite my skills and experience, I was seen as a convict first and foremost, still hampered by my past mistake long after my debt to society was paid.
Sergejev notes that people who have been incarcerated for felonies have a harder time finding work or housing. “Though I wasn’t able to become a firefighter, I found work in the Bay Area at the Young Women’s Freedom Center, working with people like myself with past criminal convictions.
“California has embraced more humane sentencing laws, moving away from the mass incarceration trends of the 1980s and 90s. But that is not enough. We must also reform dozens of other laws and restrictions to make it easier for people to transition back into society,” she opines. “We must end housing and employment discrimination and ensure that formerly incarcerated people do not continue to be blacklisted after our debt to society is paid.
“We must re-evaluate the laws that keep people from successfully re-entering communities. By removing barriers, we can make the road back easier and ensure those who have paid their debt to society truly get a second chance to be successful, contributing members of the community.”