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Second Chance for Inmate Firefighters

By: Angela Connell

When Rasheed Lockhart applied to be an inmate firefighter in 2016, he had 5-years left in his sentence. Fire Camp as it is loosely known among CDCR inmates and staff, is a golden opportunity to get a better pay rate, get out of your pod, and leave the prison. These coveted jobs are flooded with 100s of applications, yet only an average of 10-incarcerated folks is chosen.

“It wasn’t really the act of firefighting that made me want to join,” he said, “I just wanted the job because I would get to sleep in a room by myself, eat good, and train dogs. Plus, those guys just look cool.” Rasheed had no idea how much more this opportunity would be for him, as well as for those inside. In his nearly 3-years as an inmate firefighter, he performed CPR almost 50 times, but only 4 of those people lived. “The sad truth is that San Quentin has an aging population of people either dying of old age or giving up”, Rasheed reminisces. Suicides, fentanyl outbreaks, fall of bunks, or fight injuries: in 2017, almost 20 people died of various causes. The closeness that incarceration brings, collectively enduring the unimaginable is magnified for folks serving as inmate firefighters: those who were chosen for duty are enveloped in the counter-culture of love, support, and pride. Everyone inside respected the life-saving efforts of those individuals.

And, in September 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom agreed. California’s inmate firefighters who have risked their lives inside and outside the prison walls, will now be able to gain meaningful employment in occupational first responder jobs. AB 2147, sponsored by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino) was passed in the State Assembly and Senate on August 20, 2021. Both Reyes and Newsom recognized that inmates who participated in one of the 44 California Conservation Camps received the same training as CALFIRE; however, once they were out of custody, formerly incarcerated FireCamp graduates couldn’t get hired because of their criminal backgrounds.

AB 2147 allows for formerly incarcerated firefighters to file a petition to request their records to be expunged of convictions and gain early termination of their probation or parole. As a result of this necessary bill, they will be able to apply for a variety of high-paying jobs, setting them up for sustainable success through meaningful employment. Governor Newsom wholeheartedly supported this legislation, stating it will give “thousands of heroic individuals” real opportunity and hope. Although this law was enacted in 2021, the petition, paperwork, and process take a bit of time to enact: according to LegInfo, this specific AB bill was updated to reflect that a lapse period of 2-years post-release must be in effect to file the expungement petition.

Signing AB 2147 into law is the most progressive Second Chance law that California has seen, and it is just the beginning. As Assembly member Reyes says, “Rehabilitation without strategies to endure the formerly incarcerated have a career, is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those who show the determination and commitment to turn their lives around”.

As of his release, Rasheed has swept the State + the Nation with incredible and necessary reentry work.



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