In letters and a journal, Michael wrote about what it meant to him to fight fires. “When I had got up to the front the flames were high and hot. I could feel myself growing stronger instantly. . . . Sometimes I was 3 to 4 feet from the fire and at other times I was two feet away. As I worked I could feel my arms and shoulders become heavy as mortar stones. But that only fueled me.” He took pride in being given one of the toughest jobs on the crew: “Some underestimate the work of using a saw during a fire which is why many don’t last on the saw. To use the saw takes strength, determination, and heart. It is a very grueling task and probably the most important one.” Whereas for most of his time in prison, Michael saw “a hill of years to climb,” in 2003, he wrote, “Time is flying by so fast I can hardly keep up with the days.”
The most painful part of Michael’s reentry was that there was no way for him to be considered for employment on any of the fire crews he’d worked with. He’d gone to jail after committing three robberies and an attempted carjacking in a three-day period. He was 15, and it was his first arrest. Now, 11 years on, Michael had found his calling — tear-inducing, breath-smothering work fighting wildfires. The fire camps, though, were not in Los Angeles, and the law required Michael to be paroled back to the county where he had committed his crimes. The path he’d found during incarceration was no longer available to him.
This is the great wrong of California’s inmate firefighting program. It shows us exactly what offenders need to set their lives to rights: the opportunity for meaningful and recognized work that connects them to society and positive social relationships. Yet the program is based on a system of justice that largely denies people such pathways — mass incarceration.
Years and years in prison inevitably deplete a healthy capacity for social connectedness. Inmates who successfully reenter society must overcome that; they have to do the time and undo the time. Firefighting helped Michael undo the time, but he couldn’t extend that experience after he was released.
For that matter, the inmate firefighting program also shows us exactly what Michael, growing up in South Central L.A., had needed before he committed his crimes: that same opportunity for meaningful and recognized work and positive social connections. In his case, he also very specifically needed work that was physically and intellectually challenging. I recognize those qualities now in my own 8-year-old son. To how many young men are they relevant?
Inmate firefighting crews should be abolished not because people who have committed offenses against the laws shouldn’t be asked to do this work but because we should abolish our system of mass incarceration and replace it with an altogether different system for sanctioning offenders.
Whereas the United States uses incarceration for 70 percent of offenses, in the Netherlands, incarceration is used for only 10 percent of offenses, and in Germany for 6 percent. Sanctions are otherwise imposed through a variety of methods, including apprenticeship, training, work-release programs and service programs. The firefighting program would be an excellent example of such a program if it were linked to the minimum wage, residential systems for those serving sanctions structured like the fire camps as the norm rather than the exception, and further opportunities in employment at the completion of the sanction.
This year, covid-19 has left California even more vulnerable to wildfires because the state can no longer press as many inmates into service, having released them to protect them from the disease. It just shows us how badly our world has gone, like Alice through the looking glass, to a place where everything is the opposite of what it should be.