Inmates help battle California’s wildfires. But when freed, many can’t get firefighting jobs

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Sacramento Bee – By Adesuwa Agbonile

The first time Amika Sergejev Mota drove on a firetruck was also the first time she had seen the world in nearly five years. Convenience stores, fast food drive-thrus, people walking on the side of the street – for a moment, they all took on a strange, ethereal power.

Then, the truck stopped, and Mota got out – in full firefighter gear – to do her job.

For two and a half years, while she was incarcerated, Mota worked as an inmate firefighter at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. And she is only one of many. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state typically has about 3,000 inmate volunteer firefighters. They stay in conservation camps, and can often work for up to 24 hours straight containing California’s wildfires on 15-person hand crews. This year, they made up nearly one-fifth of the force fighting the wildfire that raged across California.

“There’s a lot of fires in California that would not be put out without hand crews,” said Jim Matthias, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The inmates also do conservation work, preserving parks and maintaining California forests. For their work, they are paid $2 a day – plus a dollar for every hour they fight wildfires, according to Alexandra Powell, CDCR spokesperson.

But when these inmates are released, it can be hard for them to turn their months of work into a steady job as a firefighter on the outside. Cursory background checks that pull up criminal history often disqualify people – even if just the year before, that same person was helping put out the largest wildfire in California’s history.

That means that people like Mota can spend years saving lives while incarcerated, and then struggle to find a place to do the same work when free.

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