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The Life-Saving Workers That Few Talk About

Authored by Harrison Ribeiro de Oliveira

May Day, or International Workers Day, honors the people punching in every day to keep our world running. But our gratitude should extend throughout the other 364 days of the year — including appreciation of our nation’s incarcerated workers.

In California, incarcerated workers can make as little as 8 cents per hour, taking on overlooked, important, and often dangerous labor such as fighting wildfires. 

This is an issue that spans economic, climate, and criminal-legal system justice. Even though states like California experienced heavy rainfall this year, fire season is still expected to be average. That means incarcerated firefighters will return to the frontlines as hundreds of thousands of acres are projected to burn later in the year.

Trailblazers such as Royal Ramey and Brandon Smith met while training at a fire camp for incarcerated individuals. Since coming home, Ramey and Smith founded the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), an organization devoted to opening opportunities in wilderness firefighting careers for other folks experiencing and returning from incarceration. You can read more about and support FFRP here or watch this video.

Before 2020, finding employment as a firefighter post-incarceration was incredibly difficult. Thanks to the passage of AB 2147 in California, formerly incarcerated firefighters can now overturn their convictions or expunge their records. Having put their lives on the line to protect our communities and our wild lands, these workers now have more opportunities to put their talents and the skills they’ve accumulated to use when they leave prison.

Despite the best intentions of AB 2147’s authors, however, the progress this bill promised has been slow and drawn out at best, contributing to a national shortage of firefighters as the climate crisis contributes to worsening forest fires across the western US.

This month, as part of our emphasis on Dream Jobs, we’re asking you to keep in mind the unseen, underappreciated labor of incarcerated workers who make valuable contributions to our communities – from manufacturing the products we use to fighting fires and saving lives.

Consider supporting policies and programming that ease the reentry and economic integration of our returning citizens, and check out the list of further readings below for more information on the incarcerated people fighting our nation’s wildfires.

Further readings:

  1. 'An Untapped Pool of Talent': Why Isn't California Hiring More Formerly Incarcerated Firefighters? | KQED
  2. Landmark law sparks new hope for former inmates who battled California wildfires | Mercury News
  3. ‘We Need Everyone’: How Two Formerly Incarcerated Firefighters Built a Movement | The Crime Report
  4. Watch: Meet the formerly incarcerated fire crew protecting California from wildfires 


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