Inmate Firefighters Now Have Path to Record Expungement. Some Say the Focus Should Be on the 13th Amendment.

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Michael T. Gebre has been fighting California wildfires for the last 36 days, with very few breaks, as the River Fire and Carmel Fire burned thousands of acres throughout Monterey County. Gebre officially became a firefighter in June, but he had been fighting fires as an inmate firefighter long before he joined the ranks of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 

Gebre, 28, was convicted of second-degree robbery at the age of 19 and sentenced to nine years in prison. While he was incarcerated, he was presented with the idea of joining the prison’s firefighting program. To join, he had to undergo numerous mental health checks and tough training. He entered the program at 23 years old and helped fight numerous fires in California for just $1.90 a day throughout his 31 months involved in it.

“It definitely was tough because it's super hard work. It taught me work ethic,” Gebre told Inside Edition Digital. “Once I got a taste of my first fire season, I was like, ‘I wonder how this would feel if I was free, if I was an actual firefighter instead of an inmate firefighter.’”

When Gebre was released early in January 2020, he was recommended by Cal Fire officials for the fire academy, and just a few months later, he began training at the Ventura Training Center. While Gebre’s path looks bright, he initially wasn’t sure how he would grow in his career without an Emergency Medical Technical certification, which most local and county fire departments require for firefighter positions. A clean criminal record is required to obtain an EMT certification. 

That all changed earlier this month when legislators passed Assembly Bill 2147, which allows those who served as inmate firefighters to have their records expunged once they are released. Some experts say the new law is long overdue and only a part of what it will take to reform the United States' criminal justice system.

On Sept. 11, Gov. Gavin Newson signed the bill and said the new legislation “rights a historic wrong and recognizes the sacrifice of thousands of incarcerated people who have helped battle wildfires in our state.”

Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes, who wrote the bill, said in a previous interview that the “inequity did not seem right” in reference to inmate firefighters not being able to land jobs upon release.

“What they’re volunteering to do is very dangerous. What better proof of rehabilitation is there than being willing to put their lives on the line for people they’ve never met?” she told the San Diego Tribune.

Dr. Michele Bratcher Goodwin, Chancellor’s Professor at the University of California, Irvine, told Inside Edition Digital that the law is a step in the right direction, but the actual issue is with the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, except as punishment for a crime. Not only did the law make prison labor legal, but the constitutional law predominately affected people of color.

“It's important to know that, because of the way in which the 13th Amendment was ratified with this punishment clause, it provided incentives in southern states that had held vigorously onto slavery and then later into other states that had been ambivalent about slavery,” Goodwin said. “Now there was a perverse incentive because if there were people who were convicted, now you could make those people do all sorts of labor.”

Statistics show that Black Americans and Hispanics make up 32% of the U.S.'s population but 56% of the U.S.'s incarcerated population, according to the NAACP.

“So you have a system of Black and brown people upholding this system, receiving no wages or coercive wages, meaning virtually no wages, doing things like putting out fires,” Goodwin added. “Interestingly, when they leave, they are disenfranchised … This is the lingering lesson for us of human slavery.”

Inmates began fighting fires in California after World War II because there was a lack of individuals in the work force, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Fire Camps, which is where inmates who have been trained to fight fires are held, were first established in the state in 1946. Now, there is 43 across the state and the program is officially called the Conservation Camp Program.

Those convicted of murder and sexual offenses are ineligible for the program. 

In a statement on the day AB 2147 was passed, Reyes said: “Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure 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.”

Gebre, who is still on parole, plans to get his record expunged as soon as he is off parole in January 2021. He ultimately hopes to become a paramedic. He says he's glad that the new law provides hope for not only his future, but generations to come.

“It's super huge. It's going to help a lot of people out and it's going to be a generational shift in the right direction for many, because now they can be better role models for their kids and their kids' kids,” he said.

And for Gebre, it allows people to see him for who he is now.

“I can honestly say that I've changed. I changed years ago," Gebre said. “It's a weight off my shoulders because now when I go apply for a job, I don't have that huge shadow. When I go interview, they're looking at Michael Gebre and they're not looking at Michael Gebre's past.”

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