Room to Grow:

How paving the way for the formerly incarcerated can help us confront the compound crisis we face in California.

It’s a terrible feeling to sit at home and do nothing while your state is burning. 

Every year California needs more people on the frontlines of our deadly fires, and Californians aren’t rushing to volunteer. The segment of the population that consistently seeks out this perilous, though rewarding, work is that of formerly incarcerated men and women. Though egregiously underpaid, many of them get a taste for the job while participating in fire camps and often want to continue fighting fires when they’re released, yet up until now most have been barred from doing so. 

On Sunday, a new bill, AB 2147, was passed in the CA Senate that will allow incarcerated individuals who participated in a state or county fire camp to apply for the expungement of their criminal records upon release. Previously, people in this position had to wait seven years to start the process, but if AB 2147 is approved by Governor Newsom, formerly incarcerated firefighters will be allowed to apply to clear their records as soon as they’re off parole, thereby becoming eligible to apply to be firefighters. 

Steven Rose, age 33, is currently fighting the third-largest fire in California history, the LNU Lightning Complex. Rose spent five years in prison after being caught in a residential burglary. He now has a full-time position at Cal Fire, running a warehouse that serves six counties. Last Friday, Rose delivered 20,000 feet of hose to the frontline. Rose says that when he was younger, he was attracted to crime for the thrill and to support his drug habit; now he finds excitement in a very different way. 

“I like driving up and seeing a plume of smoke,” Rose says. “Your hair stands up, you start sweating … You’re going to give up on your body long before it gives up on you; you’re going to give up on yourself long before your mind is actually broken. The body is a crazy thing. Right? It heals itself.”

Rose attributes his success on the outside to his experiences at fire camp during prison. It was an experience that changed the way he saw himself, and eventually how he was seen by others. After prison, he participated in the Ventura Training Center, a rare program for people on parole who want to be firefighters. At that point in his life, Rose had never written a resume, and the trainers at the camp helped him learn how to do that.

“Let’s just say I don’t mind looking in the mirror anymore,” Rose says. “Before, I was selfish. I was angry. I did not care. And now I wake up daily … I like to get to work and do something meaningful. No matter what, if I do one task a day at work that’s what keeps me going. I get home and I’m proud.”

Rose qualified for fire camp because he was young and able-bodied, but also because he was a minimum-custody prisoner serving a sentence for a nonviolent felony offense. Brandon Bailey, a 33-year-old philosophy student at UC Berkeley, recounts a very different experience. 

Bailey’s father, Alex Schmies, was incarcerated when Bailey was three years old and spent 19 years in prison for a controversial case that is now studied in law schools. In the process of chasing Schmies, police hit and killed a pedestrian, a death that Schmies was charged for and convicted of. While incarcerated, Schmies was allowed to study firefighting at a community college. He went on to fight fires in California every summer for approximately nine years. 

Bailey says his father was sent to the most toxic and dangerous spots, where helicopters were dropping fire retardant. The work was brutal, and paid pennies, but his father said he would have done it for free because it was the best opportunity he had and he grew to love it. 

Schmies was released from High Desert State Prison in Shasta County in 2013 to what his son describes as a “completely hopeless situation.” For seven months he lived in his car in Redding, CA and survived on very little. Even though he was in a lot of pain, he didn’t go back to using, but stayed sober until he was brutally beaten to death by a group of strangers.

“My father would have jumped on the chance to keep firefighting,” Bailey says. “But he was always told he didn’t qualify.”

Bailey says he’s glad he had a chance to make peace with his father before he was murdered, but he wishes his father had had an opportunity to make a better life for himself. He feels his father deserved much better after his years of hard work, sacrifice and service as an incarcerated firefighter.

I see a parallel with incarcerated firefighters and the Indian laborers who formed Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement in South Africa. These laborers were treated as less than human, until they showed their willingness to be hurt or die in their fight for equal rights and citizenship, their right to be seen as human. Their willingness to sacrifice themselves and confront danger helped restore their humanity in the eyes of a racist society. 

For many in our society today, prisoners are an abstraction, a statistic that’s much easier not to give a face or a name to. Incarcerated firefighters have won widespread respect for their willingness to do a dangerous job for the greater good, shifting them in the minds of many from the category of “dangerous other” to “heroic human.”

This dramatic shift, though in some ways hopeful, is also worrisome. After all, firefighting is not for everyone. Many people come out of prison resilient, skilled and with keen senses tested by extreme hardship, but many more come out traumatized, hurt and defeated. Shouldn’t all formerly incarcerated people get the opportunity to live their lives, pursue their dreams and give back to society, not just the extremely brave and able-bodied ones?

A person shouldn’t have to risk their life to get a second chance. It’s essential to recognize that our mechanisms of justice are critically flawed, unequal and discriminatory. The vast majority of people who go through our criminal justice system emerge having been treated unjustly by society through harsh sentencing disproportionate to their crime, racial discrimination and unnecessary cruelty. 

The seemingly endless cycle of disease, upheaval and natural disaster we currently find ourselves in is forcing many Californians to reevaluate their beliefs. We need to maximize our collective strength in order to meet the challenges we’re facing. One way to do this is to create more incentives and an easier path for everyone coming out of our prisons to provide for themselves and contribute in a constructive way. To do this, we need a lot more carrots and far fewer sticks.

The expungement of a criminal record is a practical measure and a form of restorative justice, of society telling individuals that we see them as bigger than their past. You may have hurt society, you may have hurt yourself, but we need you, we still care about you and we want you back in the fold. Many people in our prisons have caused significant harm, but we as a society continue this harm by failing to give our incarcerated population a meaningful path to make amends and move forward. 

For many years Rose was very harsh with himself for the choices he made and the harm they caused others, but he doesn’t blame himself as much anymore. He now sees himself as being of service to his unit, something larger than his own failures and accomplishments. 

“I just feel that who I was is not who I am today,” says Rose. “That shouldn’t have a bearing on what I can do. It’s who I am today that matters.” 

When a police car drives by during our conversation Rose laughs, remembering how different his reaction would have been during his years of crime.

“If given the opportunities,” Rose adds, “I assure you … a lot of [incarcerated] people will take this to the next level and run with it and just be just amazing firefighters, amazing workers, amazing people, you know? Given the right circumstances and a push in the right direction.”

Helping restore dignity to our formerly incarcerated restores our dignity, too. It gives us the potential to expand our humanity to include those we fear, dismiss and objectify as “other.” It is both the ethical thing to do and in our collective best interest.

AB 2147 is a good bill that Governor Newsom should certainly pass, but thus far policy changes responding to the compound crises California is mired in have been incremental and have fallen short of our collective needs.

We should welcome and reward the willingness of some prisoners to fight fires, help with COVID-19 and respond to the climate crisis—just as we should make an encouraging path for those who want to get an education, care for their children and protect aging parents. 

When it comes to these essential life lessons, we as a society have a lot to learn from the formerly incarcerated among us. 

“Why would I stop growing?” Rose asks. “I have room to grow. It’s like a fire. I look at life and I see have room to grow.”