They were incarcerated firefighters, now they want to change how California fights fires

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The pandemic isn’t the real reason why California’s firefighting force is spread so thin this year, some formerly incarcerated firefighters and advocates tell The Verge. Formerly incarcerated firefighters who want to keep working have been locked out of careers in firefighting because of their criminal records. Some people coming out of prison might be able to qualify for seasonal jobs fighting wildland fires, but that’s often low-paid, temporary work. Bills aimed at removing barriers so that people can have a career after incarceration have yet to pass.

Incarcerated firefighters have made headlines this month as they battle some of the state’s biggest infernos ever and return to prisons where the novel coronavirus has spread out of control. More than 1,300 incarcerated firefighters have been on the front lines of recent blazes. There would have been hundreds more had the state not decided to release thousands of people in prisons early to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The Verge spoke with two people who worked as municipal firefighters while incarcerated in California. Amika Mota was a lead engineer between 2012 and 2015 at the Central California Women’s Facility’s firehouse in Chowchilla, where she served a sentence for vehicular manslaughter. Rasheed Lockheart was also a lead engineer for two years while serving a sentence for armed robbery at San Quentin State Prison. He left the prison in January, just before it became the location of one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the US.

Rasheed Lockheart worked as a municipal firefighter for two years while serving his sentence at San Quentin State Prison.
Image courtesy of Rasheed Lockheart

Mota says she earned 37 cents an hour as a firefighter; her monthly paycheck — which came out to $56 — wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of running shoes she needed to keep in shape for the job. Lockheart earned 53 cents an hour — at that rate, he needed to work 13 hours just to save enough to buy a six-pack of soup, he says. Bay Area firefighters outside of prison, in comparison, earn an average of $47.44 an hour. But becoming city firefighters outside of prison was off the table for Mota and Lockheart because their convictions barred them from getting an EMT certificate, a requirement for most city and county fire departments. Now, they both work for nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area that advocate for people who’ve been incarcerated, Mota as a policy director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center and Lockheart as a grassroots fundraiser for Planting Justice.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your experience like as a firefighter?

Mota: At the time I went into the fire department, it seemed like one of the best things I could possibly do in prison. It was a way to step away from the prison drama. It was a way to do something that would give me a new skill set. I kind of envisioned getting in shape and getting fit mentally as well. And then being able to serve in the community felt like a huge honor at that point.

I just had no idea what the work actually looks like. I just couldn’t even wrap my head around it. I really didn’t realize when I got out there that we were going to be responding to major car accidents on the freeway. My first car accident was a triple fatality and we were in charge of towing bodies. It was one of the worst. Even the really seasoned firefighters that were responding on the call with us — I remember seeing one of the OGs throwing up on the side of the road. It was so bad that they were shook to the bone.

Afterwards, I remember talking to my papa because he was an ER nurse and I knew he would understand what that type of trauma was like. He was probably the best person I could have talked to because he was like, “Look, I know firefighters see the worst of it.”

Lockheart: I didn’t know it would be one of the most profound things I’ve ever done in my life. It gave me a sense of purpose, even more than what I thought I had. It gave me camaraderie, more than what I thought I had. And it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. To this day I am still a firefighter.

Sadly, the majority of our calls were either transporting bodies from housing units to the hospital or doing CPR. The hardest thing was to do CPR on individuals that I’ve maybe known for years on end. I recognized a lot of the faces. It’s an aging, dying population because of overcrowding and mass incarceration. In 2017, we had 20-something deaths, and I did CPR on almost every one of them.

What runs through your head when you hear headlines about inmate firefighters fighting blazes in the middle of a pandemic this year?

Lockheart: The first thing that comes to my mind is they’re overworked. They’re overburdened. My incarcerated firefighters are now going to have to carry even more of the load.

They’re getting a lot of “man downs,” which essentially are just somebody needs to be transported to the hospital for care. These cell blocks are like five tiers tall with very narrow walkways. So when somebody is unable to either just get out of bed or function because of whatever medical emergency they might be having, they call the municipal firefighters.

I feel major survivor’s guilt. The same people that I was in charge of helping and saving, I now can’t do anything for. The same people that I’ve walked the yards with — that were great human beings who deserve their opportunity to be out here, living their best life and giving back the way that I am — aren’t able to do that and they’re living in fear.

And then there’s this reality that incarcerated firefighters won’t even get their dues. They won’t even get the same opportunities after leaving prison.

Mota: You see articles coming out that say COVID-19 has wiped out our firefighter force or early releases have wiped out our ability to call on firefighters. That narrative is so frustrating to me because we’re not talking about releases in the sense of what it means to have freedom be a priority. We’re talking about freedom in exchange for what the state loses when we gain freedom. And the fact that we have all been so thoroughly vetted by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to make it to a fire department or a fire camp to begin with, means that they have looked carefully at our crime, our behavior in prison, the interactions we have with staff and correctional officers, and they have deemed us to be safe enough to be in the community. Yet we’re not safe enough to be home with our families? That is so crazy. It’s like we’re low level enough to be fighting fires and saving the state $100 million a year, but they’re literally saying that we’re not worthy enough to be free.

What needs to change for California’s incarcerated firefighters?

Mota: My analysis of the program has changed a lot from when I was there to now being home for five years. I’ve started to look deeper and I have to say that I’m pretty horrified about the fact that California is so incredibly over reliant on a prison population, in my opinion, to backfill the state budget.

The whole firefighter population is so low risk that they should be home. Every single one of them. We need to find a completely different structure to funnel people into actual paid employment opportunities and not a slave labor force that pulls Black and brown bodies from a prison population to fill our budget gap. I’m sorry I’m going off on it, but this is what I feel like we keep missing.

Lockheart: I’m not advocating to get rid of the fire camps or the firehouses, that’s not what I’m doing at all. I want equal pay for those firefighters who are risking their lives the same way everybody else is because it essentially says to us that our lives aren’t worth as much as yours are. There are jobs that pay minimum wage inside these prisons. So why would these people who are out there risking their lives not get the same thing?

When we go out into the streets after getting out of prison, we would like the opportunity to continue doing this trade that we’ve just learned. We should be able to transition right into a fire department, the same way that firefighters do when they come out of academies.

Mota: There is absolutely discrimination about hiring formerly incarcerated people. [There are also disparities when it comes to race and gender: career firefighters in the US are still 95 percent male and 82 percent white.] The narrative around that is that it’s a trust thing and a character flaw. Every time I hear that, I want to be like, “But we were responding in peoples’ homes. We were performing CPR on people and bringing people back from drug overdoses. We were responding to correctional officers families’ that got in a car accident on Highway 99 on their way to work. We were those trusted firefighters that you say that we are not worthy of being.”

What I’d been told by the chiefs and the captains that I worked with was that I may be eligible to work for the state as a seasonal wildland firefighter. But that would require me leaving my children who I had just been gone from for seven years, and the pay was not great. Working at a municipal fire department in the Bay Area was just not on the radar because I knew that we needed to have an EMT license, which I would be banned from having as a felon in California. I would have loved to continue firefighting, but it just was not in the realm of possibility in my mind at all.

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