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The firehouse behind prison walls

Actor Max Thieriot plays incarcerated firefighter Bode Donovan on CBS’s new drama, Fire Country. Photo: Bettina Strauss/CBS

A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West. Sign up for this newsletter here.

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Incarcerated firefighters come to primetime

In a trailer for CBS’s new firefighting drama, Fire Country, an opening scene of a wild, windswept coast in Northern California cuts to a parole hearing. Bode Donovan, blond locks tucked neatly behind his ears, stands before a committee of three unsmiling bureaucrats. The hard-edged twang of Kane Brown’s “Riot” plays in the background.

“I want to say I take full responsibility for my actions,” says Donovan. “I stand before you a different man.”

In the next shot, Donovan, played by actor Max Thieriot, clambers off a bus at a California corrections fire camp. “Your life is pretty simple: work hard, do what I tell you, reduce your sentence, and you go home to your families sooner,” fire captain Manny Perez (played by Kevin Alejandro) tells the men. 

Fire Country brings the conversation about incarcerated firefighters, prison labor, and second chances to primetime. 

The show (which Cal Fire officials do not endorse) appears to have the expected dose of interpersonal intrigue — in one controversial scene, for instance, Donovan brawls with a civilian firefighter. However, we’ll have to wait until the premiere on Friday to see how it will treat issues such as low wages and post-release employment. 

Bode Donovan, an incarcerated firefighter played by actor Max Thieriot, stands before a parole board on the new CBS drama, Fire Country. Photo: Bettina Strauss/CBS

The timing of a new report on career opportunities for formerly incarcerated firefighters couldn’t have been better. The study was authored by student researchers affiliated with Underground Scholars, an academic support program for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students, and published this week by the Institute for Research on Employment and Labor at the University of California at Berkeley

The number of incarcerated fire camp workers has dwindled from 4,500 in 2012 to 1,600 last year. More and more have paroled without others to fill their spots, even as California’s wildfires raged. Centering the voices of former firefighters, the report explores both the rehabilitative and exploitative aspects of California’s fire camp system. 

The researchers found that California’s prison fire camps create meaningful experiences for incarcerated men and women and offer tangible benefits like sentence reduction. At the same time, incarcerated firefighters receive little recognition and low wages for doing the same job as civilian fire crews and face an uphill battle in pursuing careers in firefighting. Their pay ranges from $1 to $5 per day, and an extra $1 per hour while actively fighting fires, the study found. 

The fire camps are controversial. Criminal justice reform advocates argue that the system is akin to slavery, forcing men and women to put their lives on the line for pennies. But participating in the fire camps is voluntary

One formerly incarcerated firefighter interviewed for the study noted that most of the criticism of the fire camps come from activists who have not been incarcerated themselves. 

“I am not on board with the extreme antagonism we see in activist circles towards the fire camp program,” the interviewee said. “We…know that labor is an issue in prisons and that fire camps are not the principal type of labor we should be worried about…if we’re concerned with it from the labor/slavery perspective, let’s not focus on the single most humane place in the prison system.”

The story of a prison town

I’ll admit I’ve always been a sucker for fire dramas like ABC’s Chicago Fire and NBC’s Station 19. But whereas those are set in major cities, Fire Country takes place in the rural community of Edgewater, inspired by Thieriot’s hometown in Sonoma County. 

Thieriot pitched the series to CBS to highlight small towns where going to college isn’t the norm. “Most of my friends joined the military or went to work for Cal Fire out of high school,” he told TV Guide.  

That’s the story of many rural communities in California, including in Susanville, a former logging town that’s been in the headlines since last year when the state announced the impending closure of one of the prisons located there. 

Last spring, my Open Campus colleague Nick Fouriezos and I visited Susanville. There, Lassen Community College’s fire science program runs academies for Cal Fire. It also used to be the main training hub for incarcerated firefighters in Northern California. 

As Nick wrote in his Mile Markers newsletter, hundreds of incarcerated firefighters have cycled through basic firefighting training run by the college. The trainees are then deployed in hand crews, who help remove vegetation and construct fire lines, based at 15 fire camps in Northern California. But the number of incarcerated students bound for fire camps has dwindled due to the impending closure of the California Correctional Center in June 2023. 

When the prison closes, the Sierra Conservation Camp in Jamestown, Calif. will take over training for the entire state. 

Under an agreement with Cal Fire, students who train in Susanville receive three college credits through Lassen Community College and a Cal Fire certificate that is recognized by other agencies. Cal Fire covers the cost of the training with no expense to the student, said Anna Pasqua, the college’s fire science coordinator. 

The opportunity for incarcerated firefighters to earn college credit for fire training will end with the closure of the prison. 

Direct contact with the outside world

Carlos Romo, a fire science student at Lassen Community College in Susanville, Calif. Photo: Nick Fouriezos/Open Campus

While the college’s fire camp training program will be discontinued, it will maintain its relationship with the firehouse currently located at the California Correctional Center, which will soon move to High Desert State Prison. The firehouse behind the walls operates like a normal fire department on the outside, with a group of around 15 men responding to calls both in the prisons and in the local community. In addition to the training they receive on the job, they also have the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree in fire science through the college. 

Carlos Romo used to be one of them. Now 30, he was incarcerated at the age of 18 and spent the last decade trying to rehabilitate himself. He’d tried to go to college while incarcerated at other prisons, but faced challenges with registering for classes or getting the required textbooks. 

He completed his associate’s degree last spring and then moved onto campus and enrolled in the Cal Fire Academy at Lassen College after being released in fall 2021. 

Romo said that working in the firehouse provided something rare in prison: direct contact with the outside world. Responding to incidents such as traffic collisions and medical calls meant he interacted with the general public, and that made his transition back into society easier. 

Typically in California, people are released to the communities where they lived before they were incarcerated. But Romo, who is from Los Angeles, wanted to stay in Susanville because of the support he had from the staff and faculty in the fire science program. 

Last fall, Romo completed a three-month academy that allowed him to be hired as an entry-level firefighter with Cal Fire. The position is seasonal, with a base monthly salary of around $3,450-4,350 (and weekly bonuses of $1,700-$2,200 when actively fighting fires). 

When we met him last spring, he was working three 24-hour shifts each week with Cal Fire and finishing up several general education classes at Lassen Community College. Now, he’s moved into his own apartment and is enrolled in an online bachelor’s program in fire protection administration and technology at California State University Los Angeles

Licensing and expungement

Although recent legislation is supposed to make it easier for formerly incarcerated firefighters to expunge their records, Romo isn’t eligible because the law only applies to firefighters who were at fire camps, not prison firehouses. It also excluded fire camp workers who were not active on the fire line, such as clerks and kitchen workers  – about 45 percent of the incarcerated residents of fire camps. 

The Berkeley study noted that the legislation is so narrow and subject to judicial discretion that very few people have benefited from it. 

A major barrier for many formerly incarcerated people seeking firefighting positions is the requirement to have an emergency medical technician license. California has a lifetime ban for people convicted of multiple felonies from being certified as EMTs, and individuals convicted of a single felony cannot become an EMT for 10 years after their sentence ends.

While Romo was able to find a firefighting job even though he had a conviction, there are still limits on his career. While Cal Fire and federal agencies don’t always require EMT licenses, most municipal fire departments do. 

Romo said he doesn’t need an EMT license right now because he’s fighting wildfires and doesn’t respond to medical calls. But it could hold him back in the future, he said. He hopes to eventually apply for expungement after he’s had a few years on the job and finished his bachelor’s. 

Many formerly incarcerated firefighters reported that none of the certificates they earned in prison or the work they had done counted as experience for outside firefighting, according to the Berkeley study. 

One woman interviewed for the study said her background became a liability when she went back to school. “They knew about my experience from being inside a fire camp, because I did have hella certificates for shit that I wanted to show and post,” she said. “I wanted to tell people about what I know and what I learned. These folks made [it] very clear that they did not like me, they did not like where I got my skills from, and that it was a problem.”

One of the recommendations in the Berkeley report is to standardize training across fire camps, for instance by using Cal Fire’s fire academy curriculum, and for all camps to offer credentials that would be recognized by outside agencies. 

For his part, Romo sees his firehouse experience as an asset and isn’t shy about sharing his story. “Because of where I came from, and the experience that I got from being an incarcerated individual, I have more than what a lot of my coworkers have.”

He said he’s even mentoring some of the younger guys he works with at Cal Fire. “In a way it helps me be an example for them,” he said. “Doing my bachelor’s while working, a lot of the younger individuals are like, ‘hey, what I gotta do to go to school?’”

News & views

Prisons fail to implement programs that are successful at setting incarcerated people up for success in the future, such as giving people opportunities to earn money, obtain an education, or gain relevant job skills, according to a new report from the Prison Policy Institute. Some key stats on education: 

  • Only 17 percent of people in state prisons are currently participating in educational programming and 10 percent are in job training. 
  • Only 43 percent of people in state prisons have participated in educational programming at any point since they were incarcerated. 
  • Of the more than half of people who said they had never participated in educational programming, 18 percent (125,000 people) had never been offered the chance. Others said they weren’t qualified, weren’t allowed, could not get in or were waitlisted. 
  • Half (53 percent) of people without a high school credential reported former or current enrollment in education programs, compared to less than 30 percent of people with at least a high school diploma, pointing to a lack of higher education in prison. 

A new study by Melissa E. Abeyta, a higher education researcher at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, sought to understand how formerly incarcerated Latino men attending California community colleges make meaning of their experiences in postsecondary education. In California, Latino men make up 41 percent of the prison population, but only 38 percent of the state population.

Participants described a lack of preparation that stems from being incarcerated during traditional high school years and a lack of knowledge about how to navigate higher education. “Students from this population face intergenerational trauma from first-hand experiences of the school-to-prison pipeline and aspects of their carceral identity may be triggered as they are transitioning to their student identity,” Abet wrote. “Although the participants were aware of their past experiences and the obstacles they had to overcome to be students, they were empowered by their newly formed student identities.”

The Michelson 20MM Foundation recently published California’s Best Practices: Pathways From Prison to College. The report provides recommendations on how to best support students in prison as well as formerly incarcerated students on campus. 

For EdSource, Betty Márquez Rosales visited the Alameda County Library trying to boost literacy and a love for books among teenagers who are incarcerated in juvenile hall. “The library might be one of the few spaces at the juvenile hall where they can learn to enjoy reading and educational conversation without the pressure of tests, grade scores, and credits that they would need to graduate from high school,” she wrote.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

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— Charlotte West

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