THE NEUTRAL ZONE
Wildfires are spreading rapidly in parts of California, and the early release of thousands of inmates is hurting firefighting efforts to control the damage. Thousands of inmates have been released early from California prisons this year due to issues of overcrowding, as well as coronavirus concerns. California has used inmates to help fight wildfires in the state since WWII, which created a shortage in the firefighting workforce. In order to comply with social distancing guidelines, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation expects roughly 8,000 prisoners to be eligible for early release by the end of August.
Some inmates are arguing that they are not being recognized for their efforts by authorities. They allege that some violent offenders are being released ahead of many members of inmate firefighting teams, despite the fact that many of the inmate firefighters meet the criteria set forth by California Governor Gavin Newsom for early release. Attorney Maryann Cazzell issued a letter to Governor Newsom and accused the state of holding inmates unfairly to fulfill contractual obligations with CalFire. “They have an incentive to keep them there because they get paid for fulfilling this contract that they have with CalFire to provide firefighters,” she stated. A report from last year stated that inmate firefighters accounted for about a quarter of CalFire’s total workforce.
Shortage of Inmate Firefighters Hampers Response in Bay Area – KQED – 8/24/2020
While firefighters have mounted a heroic assault on fast-moving flames, risking their lives to protect numerous cities and towns, fire chiefs acknowledge that crews are severely understaffed, with only about 2,000 firefighters battling the North Bay and Santa Cruz fires combined going into last weekend. Last year, more than 5,000 firefighters fought to contain the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which burned a far smaller area.
Coronavirus Limits California’s Efforts to Fight Fires With Prison Labor – New York Times – 8/22/2020
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Ricardo Martin, who became an inmate firefighter while serving a seven-year sentence for driving while intoxicated and injuring another motorist in a crash. “But we took special pride in being able to actually save people’s homes,” Mr. Martin said. “Everybody talked about that and how good they felt about it.”
California faces an inmate firefighter shortage because the state released them early due to the pandemic – CNN – 8/24/2020
A total of 5,627 inmates have been released early since July 1, according to the CDCR. The early releases have meant there are 600 fewer inmate firefighters available this fire season compared to last year. Inmate firefighters “are an integral part of our firefighting operations,” Cal Fire Resource Management Communications Officer Christine McMorrow said.
Why Have Incarcerated People Been On The Frontlines Of California Wildfires? – Refinery 29 – 8/24/2020
Though Hampton argues what “should have been” a possibly deadly future of California’s incarcerated people, those who help fight wildfires while serving time are regularly denied necessary licenses to become actual firefighters upon their release. According to a 2018 report, all California firefighters are required EMT licenses, which are frequently refused to anyone with a criminal record.