Rush transcript
Speaker 1: September, California governor’s Newsom signed a bill into law that will allow ex-prisoners who worked in the firefighting service for the state of California to become legally recognized as firefighters. Here’s a clip of governor Newsom as he signs that bill.

Gavin Newsom: This bill that I’m about to sign, will give those prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession that they’ve been trained. I brought this piece of legislation [inaudible 00:00:37] I thought here today that we’ll give these future firefighters and emergency personnel a chance by getting them opportunity, expunge their records, giving them a chance to get a certificate getting a chance to potentially get a career ladder coming up.

Speaker 1: Prior to this bill’s passes. It was nearly impossible for those who served as prison firefighters to get a job in the field after serving in the program, how will this law look when it’s implemented by the state agencies? What exactly does the bill do and not do? And what work will remain to be done to reform the prison wildfire fighting labor system? Here to talk about that are Assemblywoman’s Eloise Reyes and Brandon Smith co-founder and executive director of Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, a nonprofit dedicated to helping ex-prisoner firefighters, land jobs in the field after serving in the conservation camp program.

Eloise Reyes: Thank you for the invitation.

Brandon Smith: Yes. Thank you much appreciated.

Speaker 1: Okay. Okay. This bill that just recently passed and was recently signed is going to have some impact. Councilwoman, can you explain to us what this bill does and what it means for firefighters in the prison program?

Eloise Reyes: What it does is finally for the first time, just in California, but in the nation, it allows someone who was formerly incarcerated, who participated on the fire lines with the California conservation camp, or the County fire camp, an opportunity to apply for and get an expungement of their felony convictions. The second part is that it also allows that person to not have to disclose that they have a felony conviction when they apply to get any kind of a state license, whether it’s an EMT license or another license. And finally, when you apply for a job, you also do not have to disclose them.

Speaker 1: Okay, Brandon, how does this… Okay. I know you’ve been fighting for this bill. How does this strike you and what do you think the impact will be from your organization’s position?

Brandon Smith: Right. Right. Well, first I want to say thank you to the Assemblywoman and the State of California for passing this bill. I think the most important thing about this is the state, us as Californians making a stance and saying that formerly incarcerated people do have the opportunity to hop into the fire service. For years, it was something that was considered… My son is here, wants to be here, excuse us. But for years it was considered a myth or something that we couldn’t do. And for the State of California, for us as Californians to come together and say, there is a pathway moving forward it’s just powerful. It’s inspirational.

I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to expunge specific crimes or modify conditions of parole and probation. And so us, at FFRP, we’re really excited about that opportunity. We have over 700 people who have currently or formerly been incarcerated in the fire camps who are excited and who are ready to put in the work that’s needed to transition into this space. So we’re excited and we’re going to continue with the work.

Speaker 1: Okay. Councilwoman, I understand the last session you put in a bill that directly addressed the EMT situation, which seems to be the holdup for prisoners getting licensed to become firefighters. That bill was defeated and there was a lot of pushback. What’s the difference between that bill, which would have addressed the problem directly in this bill here?

Eloise Reyes: Actually, this bill goes even further that bill in 2019, AB1211 had more of an intent to it. We were saying, we want to do something in this area. And we tried to work with the stakeholders to come up with a language for it. Couldn’t do it. We had a lot of pushback just as you said. But even before that in 2018, I also introduced a bill that was going to do that also, that was AB2293, we had lots of pushback. So we spent a lot of time with the stakeholders, try to figure out the best path because we knew something had to be done. We can’t continue to say these are our heroes while they’re incarcerated and fighting the fires. And then as soon as they come out, we say, who are you? We never knew you. So we knew something had to be done and working with the stakeholders, it made a big difference.

We got the Professional Fire Fighters Association to go neutral on this, which was a big deal. We had ARC and Scott Budnick. And so many others working with us on the specific language of the bill, to make sure that it did what we wanted, but the truth is it goes even beyond just an EMT license. This is for every license that is given to the State of California, not just an EMT license. And so for that, I’ve got to tell you I’m really proud, not just to the work from my office, but the work from so many stakeholders who worked with us and worked with other legislators, because we’ve got to get 41 votes.

We got to make sure that in the assembly, we get 41 people who say I’m up on this. And in the Senate, we had to get 21 of those senators to say they were up on it. It’s not an easy task, but with so many people recognizing the absolute injustice of asking people to put their life on the line while they’re incarcerated and helping right alongside those firefighters. And yet when they come out saying there is no path forward, that you [inaudible 00:06:51] become a firefighter. There were a few exceptions. And I know Brandon will tell us about those few exceptions.

Speaker 1: Yes. Brandon, that does lead me to the next question. And I do… Flashes came over my phone that a California firefighter had just lost his life, fighting fire yesterday or yesterday, I believe.

Brandon Smith: Yeah. Last night.

Speaker 1: The path to getting recognize is you don’t have to report that you have a felony and so on. But I understand in order to get that record expunged, the ex-prisoner has to go to the DA’s office, the judge’s office, there’s a number of officials that have to sign off on this. Brandon, is that going to be a legal problem for people they get out, they go there, they’re entitled. But then the government officials don’t think that they qualify for that. And so they denied. Is that going to be a problem?

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Brandon Smith: Right. And so while this bill is a great step to move forward, I still believe that we as Californians have a lot more steps to take, to ensure pathways, solutions to this unique problem, right? It’s an environmental problem and a criminal justice problem. One of the things that I [inaudible 00:08:16] to, is Proposition 64 in California that came out a couple of years ago, allowing folks not necessarily in a similar capacity, but expungements for marijuana related charges. And so where we stand in FFRP is we are here and available to work with the state and work with the Assemblywoman and other parties to figure out how the implementation of this works. Then in addition to this, also, wondering how actual agencies will respond to this, right? This being a state law, from my understanding, from the state down, they have to comply, but keep in mind firefighting. Wildfires are a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional force. And so you have the federal government involved and things of that nature. And so I think it’s great that California together we’ve decided to make this formal stance.

And now one of the things that we have to ensure is that there aren’t systems in place within these hiring agencies, that there are still processes or discriminations that may still hinder folks. And lastly, I just want to say that firefighting is a way of life while I was in fire camp, a [inaudible 00:09:28], my purpose of life. I found a way to give back to my community that was helpful. And when I got home, that’s all I was really talking about and trying to do. With firefighting being a way of life, we understand that this pathway is not for everyone. And folks need to really work hard to hop into this space. The only thing that we’re asking for is the opportunity not necessarily to prove ourselves, but to go operate into this space. So we’re appreciative.

Speaker 1: Can you talk about what needs to happen next steps? Because this bill, obviously opens the door, it creates favorable conditions, but most stuff need to happen. Do you have any idea what needs to happen next?

Eloise Reyes: Well, first I do want to say that when somebody comes out of prison on day one, they get to apply. And the notice goes to the DA, but it isn’t as though the DA has to sign off, the application is put in just like any other expungement. You put the application into the judge, either the public defender or your criminal defense attorney is going to then argue the case for you. The other part of the bill also provides that it’s without prejudice. If for some reason the judge says, I don’t think I’m going to give this today. It’s without prejudice, that person can still apply again. The second part also is that once the expungement is granted, parole, everything, every supervision of that formerly incarcerated person is terminated. That’s it. The way expungements work now you have to wait until you’re out.

You have to wait until you finish your parole. You have to wait until all of this has happened. And then you may get an expungement but you still have to notify the State of California, when you apply for a license. This bill really is so far reaching. I’ve received calls from our public defender and also from some of the criminal defense attorneys that I worked with over the years, especially when we did Prop 47 expungements, they really are excited about just knowing the possibilities of this bill. It’s far reaching, but Brandon is correct. [inaudible 00:11:53] you are correct. There’s so much more that we have to do. And I’ve talked to many of my colleagues about this. Quite frankly, many of them were surprised we finally got this bill through, but it is a first step. There are so many other things that we have to do to provide true second chances.

To say that when your sentence has been completed, you’re done. It isn’t a life sentence. You had a sentence, you complied with whatever the sentence was and you’re done, but the way a lot of these things happen, they become life sentences. We know that’s how it was for any license in State of California, for housing, for education. So we have to find ways to get to the point where you serve your sentence and that’s the end. It isn’t a life sentence, which is the way it has been. So there’s more work to be done. I have great colleagues there in the state assembly and in the state Senate who have been working on in this space for years, I’ve been there for four years.

This is the third time that I’ve introduced legislation specifically on this because I knew something had to be done, but there’s more work to be done. And I look forward to working with Brandon, because he has life experiences that will help us to put together language and bills that can get through and get voted on. But sometimes it does take more compromise and others. This particular bill I’m really happy to tell you did not have a whole lot of compromising with anybody else. We got a lot of what we wanted in this bill.

Speaker 1: Okay. Brandon, address this issue if it’s possible. I understand that it’s a privilege to get in the firefighter camp and in the firefighter program and the conditions and the quality of life is drastically different than being behind a penitentiary wall. But I understand that most of the people in these programs make two to $5 a day. Do you think maybe increasing the amount of money that they’re paid since I would say they are in a job that means they could be killed any given day. Do you think increasing that amount of money would also change people’s attitudes in the larger community, but also make it easier for people to get in and out of the program in a trust the kind of way? Because you’ve got a firefighter that’s making $5 a day. That’s… Oh, wow. That’s pretty good.

Brandon Smith: Right. And right. And so I’ll tackle it in two different ways. So one thing is, I’ll say that while incarcerated and it’s still true today, it was the most highest paying job that you can go get while incarcerated. And I would say getting $5 a day, plus a dollar an hour while I was incarcerated, I was getting $2 a day plus a dollar an hour while I was working on fire. But that was immensely higher than making 10 cents, eight cents an hour while doing tasks. So the job was the most high end page job. One of the things I would point out though with this is that… So once COVID hit, right. Pre COVID, we had about 200 fire crews out in the state of 20 folks averaging 15 to 20 folks. Post COVID there are about a hundred of those crews, right. Of incarcerated people. And so the state had to come to some solution with that.

So Cal Fire, Thom Porter, all those folks. So the same incarcerated parties that are making $5 a day and a dollar an hour, the state is now hiring those folks and they are making $3,700 a month plus overtime, right? So the same person that is making $5 a day, plus a dollar an hour is making $3,700 a month plus overtime, which is a very good portion of their salary. So you’re paying somebody an exponential amount, more money to go do the same job that they were still doing while incarcerated. So I think there does need to be a conversation. Oh my son’s going to sleep. I think there does need to be a conversation around wages. And I think there’s a way to provide a solution for that. I don’t know what the answer is. I believe that us together as Californians can come together with a solution, one of the things is, just to say, I don’t blame this on CBCR, on Cal Fire, on the state.

I think this is just a challenge that we as Californians have faced for the past over a hundred years. And it is what it is. So it’s up to us to all come together for a solution, right? And that when you look at the optics, which is really real, the majority of firefighters in the state or in the country are white men. Compared to the majority of people currently incarcerated people of color and women, right? The optics of that and the wage conversation is a real conversation that we need to have. So I don’t know the answer, but I know that we can figure it out. So I’m down to have conversations to see how we can figure it out.

Speaker 1: Your final words or thoughts you want to share Assemblywoman with the public?

Eloise Reyes: I think specifically on the issue you just asked Brandon, I agree. We need to look at this just in general, but I will tell you that with all of those who were in the fire camp, none of them complained to me about how much they were being paid. And that means a lot to me because as we were trying to figure out how to move forward with the bill, we wanted to address the issue. This is a problem. But knowing that they were getting two for one credit on the sentence, these are things that were being offered and which was a good thing. But still the pay is something that we have to look at. It’s something that it’s not just for those in the fire camp, but just the amount of money that is being saved. I will tell you that California saves over a hundred million dollars every year because of the incarcerated inmates firefighters.

It makes a big difference. So there is more to be done. And I look forward to working in this space. I’ve made lots of friends who are concerned about what is happening specifically to those who are fighting fires and putting their life on the line. So I think all of us together should be able to come up with other solutions that can will be moved forward. When you have a governor who is willing to look at this and who also… The governor is the last word on this, he could have vetoed the bill, but he had lots of people talking to him, people that he trusted that were saying, this is something we have to do. It’s not a big deal perhaps, but the fact that the Lakers tweeted about this, that was a big deal.

Because they are trying to make a change in criminal justice reform, just in justice in our society. When you have those sorts of things happening, it’s part of a movement. And I think that we were at the right place at the right time to get this bill through. And I think everybody who helped us get it through. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just my office. It was a whole lot of people convinced that we needed to do something.

Speaker 1: Okay. Brandon, any last thoughts or words you want to share?

Brandon Smith: Yes, yes. So I’d like to say that FFRP, we are here and we are fully committed all of us together as Californians developing a solution to this, to keep moving folks forward, we all know that there’s a dire need for more firefighters. And so we’re here to help with that cause also FFRP, we currently have two program components. One of the things is that we help formerly incarcerated folks transition into the space professionally with the Forest Service, Cal Fire, different private County agencies. But also what we do is we attack the problem also on the environmental stance. So right now FFRP has four crews throughout L.A and San Bernardino counties. And we’re actually doing forest thinning projects, defensible space projects, fire prevention projects, post-fire cleanup projects. And so if there are any landowners, stewards, Assemblywoman, or anybody who has projects and needs to have forest thinning work done. We have a group of people ready to go and ready to support, right now.

To help on multiple levels. And so what FFRP is doing is we are trying to model a situation or a possible solution that we can adopt as a state to really solidify this work. Because, and I agree with the Assemblywoman is not even though so many folks are focused specifically on fire. There’s also a lot of work and labor need when it comes to being a forestry technician, doing fuels reduction, working with the utility companies to protect the power lines and clear trees around there, folks in fire camp also do administrative work. I knew barbers. I knew clerks, folks who are cooks, right? So this applies to a very large amount of people and we’re just appreciative and we’re here. And we believe that those formerly incarcerated should have the opportunity if they choose to hop into gainful employment, that can not only help themselves, but their families so that they can be role models to their communities and also reduce recidivism. And we can help the State of California together. We’re California. Let’s do it.

Speaker 1: Okay. Thank you. Assemblywoman, Eloise. Thank you for Brandon.

Eloise Reyes: Thank you so much for joining us.

Brandon Smith: Thank you all. I appreciate you.

Speaker 1: And thank you for joining me on this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Eddie Conway

Executive Producer

Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.