• Sarah Gersten

California’s Conservation Camp Highlights the Need for Pathways to Employment

Photo: Getty Images/Last Prisoner Project

Each year California employs thousands of incarcerated individuals to fight the state’s wildfires. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Conservation Camp provides critical support to emergency responders during wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters. There are 44 conservation camps for adult offenders, one for juvenile offenders, and three adult offender camps that house females, according to CDCR. Of the 3,700 program participants, about 2,600 are authorized to fight fires.

Individuals with low level offenses and a record of good behavior are eligible to volunteer. Those accepted into the program receive the same training as the state’s seasonal firefighters. While some argue that the program gives incarcerated individuals a rewarding way to spend time during their sentence, the lack of employment opportunities for these volunteer firefighters post-release has come under renewed scrutiny as California has struggled to create meaningful pathways to employment.

The practice of using incarcerated individuals to fight fires dates back to World War II, when prison labor was used to assist with a depleted Cal Fire workforce.

While working alongside their Cal Fire counterparts, Fire Camp Firefighters make between $2.90 and $5.12 a day, and an additional $1 an hour when they’re battling fires. By comparison, California civilian firefighters earn an average of $73,860 per year plus benefits, overtime, and hazard pay. Although firefighters earn wages that are higher than most other prison jobs, the job comes with significant risks. Since 1983, at least six incarcerated firefighters have died on duty and thousands have been seriously injured. And the demand for additional firefighters is not waning. As the climate crisis contributes to a worsening of wildfires, the need for the state to supplement the firefighting force with incarcerated individuals becomes critical.

Unfortunately, the training and hands on experience received during Fire Camp will not translate into employment post-release. Despite California passing one of the strongest “Ban the Box” laws in the country, many formerly incarcerated individuals are ineligible for employment with fire departments. This is partially due to it being extremely difficult for formerly incarcerated people to obtain an EMT license. Although recent legislation is meant to ease some of the stringent licensing requirements for released individuals, barriers remain.

This highlights just one of the many reasons why it is so difficult to find gainful employment post-release, which in turn is one of the contributing factors to the extremely high rates of recidivism in the US. Over two-thirds of formerly incarcerated individuals are rearrested within three years of release, and within six years that number jumps to a startling 79%. In order to lower recidivism rates in this country we must structure programs that support reentry and provide the necessary resources for those leaving incarceration. This requires both public and private entities to commit to hiring justice-involved individuals.

California has an opportunity with the Fire Camp to not only provide training for employment post-release, but to create pathways for currently incarcerated individuals to full time opportunities with Cal Fire. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that will help former prisoners assist in emergency response units, but stops short of allowing them to become full-fledged firefighters. State lawmakers are also considering various bills to change the law so that formerly incarcerated individuals aren’t disqualified for fire department employment by their criminal records. The most recent piece of legislation addressing this issue, AB 1211, never made it out of committee after it received pushback from firefighters associations. The bill will be taken up again next year.

To learn more about the Last Prisoner Project’s reentry program and how we’re creating pathways for employment in the cannabis and hemp industries contact us!


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