Advocates for Inmate Firefighters
By Dianne Anderson
California wildfires are just now starting to be contained, thanks in part to the 3,400 brave inmates willing to risk their lives for $1-2 an hour for their work.
That, compared to the average California firefighter base pay of about $73,000 a year.
But for all their hazardous training and a hope for modestly reduced sentencing, they will not be working that gig again when they get out.
Ana Povah, a Malibu resident, has garnered over 103,000 signatures on her Change.org petition, which she started after one fireman told her about female inmates at a local camp.
“The women were clearing brush, and may have been called to duty to fight fires. One woman died because she fell,” said Povah, who founded the non-profit CAN-DO Foundation to advocate clemency for nonviolent drug offenders.
Earlier this month, the California Department of Corrections set off its own firestorm of sorts when it tweeted that over 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, were battling wildfire flames throughout the state.
Since starting the foundation, in addition to the petition, Povah has been trying to garner support for other campaigns, and bring awareness of broader prison system injustices to the attention of Gov. Jerry Brown.
She said the inmates risking their lives are not a threat to society.
“They would be good candidates for a commutation of the sentence before he leaves office,” said Povah, who served time in a drug-related crime, and was granted clemency under President Clinton in 2000 after serving nine years of a 24-year sentence.
Inmates are attracted to working the hazardous fires to receive reduced sentencing, such as the massive Thomas fire last year where their heroic work also went unrecognized.
After so much time, and training, she said the irony is they will be banned from working as firefighters. Talk of rehabilitation to prevent recidivism is always a hot topic at the policy level, but inmates will never get those jobs because of their felony background.
While in federal prison, Povah recalls starting at 23 cents an hour working for the federal government, making furniture, chairs, and many other products in the Unicore factory. She said nothing hindered production.
“The minute I was in orientation and the Unicore people were there talking to us about going to work for them at 23 cents an hour, I thought, okay. Now I know why I’m here,” she said. “It makes sense. ”
Povah was a first-time offender loosely tied to drug activity of her then boyfriend. She got 24 years on conspiracy law, which holds people guilty for what others do.
“Why would they want to put me in jail for 24 years? Why are we draining off resources? I’ve never hurt anybody in my life,” she said.
Recently, she moderated a panel at Berkeley School of Law about incarceration where other equal justice issues came up, like privatization and monetization of ankle monitors.
At one time, ankle monitors were only for post-incarceration, in halfway houses or house confinement. Now, they are used pre-trial.
“They connect you with this private firm, LCA [a private company, Leaders in Community Alternatives] and they’re charging people $30 a day,” she said.
One homeless man was functional within the shelter system, but required to pay $800 a month before trial. Beyond that, she said she knows of no studies about the potential health risks.
“They a have to tether themselves to an outlet because it has a battery, just like a cell phone,” she said. “There are extreme cases where people have been on these for years. What happened to innocent until proven guilty?”
Frank Mitchell, an advocate with All of Us or None, said the inmate firefighters are risking their lives in harsh conditions, which to them is the only way to get out from lockdown.
“They volunteer for this action and training, mostly to get out of the physical prison complex and ‘enjoy’ the closest they can get to freedom,” he said.
By California prison standards, he said the prison pay is high pay, and it may be a fair deal for those that have committed serious crimes against innocent people, but not for innocent people who may be doing time and didn’t commit a crime.
“It is ruthless exploitation of those who are innocent of any wrongdoing, and those who did commit an illegal offense, but who should not have been sent to prison in the first place,” he said.
Late July, the nonprofit pro-bono legal help program, Equal Justice Under Law , filed a federal class action lawsuit against Alameda County for allowing the for-profit LCA to extort and use predatory practices against the state’s poor.
The lawsuit alleges that the county contracts with LCA to provide court-ordered services, and cuts predatory profits off low-income residents who are charged $25 a day as they are forced to wear the GPS ankle monitors.
One of the plaintiffs, Williams Edwards, is battling cancer, and has faced LCA threats to “violate” him for not being able to pay, the group charges.
Also named in the suit, Robert Jackson was dealing with the death of his wife and solely responsible for their three children, but could not have his ankle monitor removed unless he paid $800. Jackson had to relocate his kids to other family members, and sell his car to pay the ankle monitor bill.
The class-action lawsuit equates CLA’s predatory profit motivation to racketeering, and in violation of the 14th Amendment.
“LCA’s abuse of the people under its supervision shows yet again the toxic result when counties delegate their criminal justice responsibilities to private companies. This ‘pay-or-jail’ scheme is unconstitutional and allows LCA to prey upon people when they are extremely vulnerable,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law.