This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by Capital B.
On the heels of the largest wildfire season in California’s modern history, Royal Ramey traded in his work on the scorched mountainsides for an office desk in San Bernardino.
He had been battling wildfires for a decade, among the thousands of incarcerated Californians who were trained by the correctional system and paid well below minimum wage to help contain the state’s increasingly deadly blazes.
Now, as temperatures in Southern California reach triple digits, Ramey says his air-conditioned office at the bottom of the parched San Bernardino National Forest is markedly better than the concrete box where he once spent nearly 24 hours a day.
Not only does he go home to his family after work, he also helps people use the skills they gained in prison to build full-time — and fully paid — wildland firefighting careers.
Looking down at a set of pristinely clean firefighting tools on his office floor, Ramey said, “I got a desire and love for fire, but also love and desire to help people.”
Ramey has helped more than 170 formerly incarcerated people join the ranks of professional firefighters in the National Fire Service through his nonprofit organization, the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program.
Co-founded in 2015 with Brandon Smith, who trained with Ramey at the Bautista Adult Conservation Fire Camp in Riverside County, the program provides training and job connections for people who worked in California prison fire camps.
Ramey said his program fills many crucial needs: combatting the more frequent impacts of climate disasters, while helping formerly incarcerated people re-enter the workforce. It also reminds the world that no person should be defined by their greatest mistake.
“There are different ways to fulfill your purpose, and when we think about the environment, climate change, and building community, we need better examples of how to do so,” said Ramey.
“We’re out here building structural support for people to be successful and make a difference in this world despite barriers put in front of them.”
Disposable land, disposable lives
More than 5,000 wildfires have ravaged California this year. That number could increase by about 20% in the next two decades, according to a 2021 study, requiring a growing workforce to aid in disaster recovery and making homes and power grids more climate resilient.
Through his own work combatting the impacts of climate change, Ramey said he’s learned that it is “very imperative that we become stewards of the land we’re on.”
It also has revealed a deep connection between human-caused climate change, the country’s use of the prison system, and racial inequality.
“In Black and Latino communities we’re told our lives are disposable,” he said, “just like the land is.”
This relationship between disposability and climate change has made using incarcerated people to fight fires even more complicated.
For decades, California has relied on fire crews of quickly trained inmates — mostly Black or Latino — to perform some of the most backbreaking work in firefighting: plowing and cutting through brush in suffocating temperatures to create perimeters to contain the flames.
Imprisoned people make up roughly one-third of California’s wildland firefighting workforce.
The United States has a history of using its Black citizens to do the dirty work of fire fighting. During World War II, as the Japanese army used “balloon bombs” in attempts to destroy America’s western forests, an all-Black U.S. Army paratrooper group known as “smokejumpers” spent months “saving the American West” and fighting fires.
But there are benefits to California’s prison fire camps, Ramey says. While incarcerated, he and Smith fell in love with fighting fire and the feeling of being needed.
“We need firefighters, and to be doing a job that is needed by the world makes it more fulfilling,” he said. “Purpose is something they take from you in prison; this gives it back.”
Firefighting is among the highest-paid jobs for state prisoners: Fire camp detainees earn around $5 a day, with an additional $1-$2 an hour when assigned to active fires.
The conditions at the camp are also better than the average state-run facility. Namely, participants can be out in the “real world” rather than in a cell all day.
“It works in [the state’s] favor and ours,” Ramey said. “As an incarcerated person, you’re already of the mindset, ‘I’m already in prison. I’m already in an environment where there’s threats each and every day, so I might be better taking a chance on this threat [of firefighting].”
But many advocates argue that incarcerated laborers should receive a living wage, contending that the pay does not match the dangers of the job. Several prisoners in the program have sustained serious injuries and even died in the field over the last decade.
The program has also opened up conversations around race and privilege within the wildland firefighting field. While incarcerated laborers are primarily Black or Latino, the professional firefighters who work the same fires are almost exclusively white. Using prison labor saves the state roughly $100 million annually in comparison to what professional firefighters are paid.
An untapped labor pool
Seeing the racial disparities in the field, Ramey and Smith knew that they wanted to continue fighting fire after they were released. But they bumped up against a troubling reality: Once released from prison, there was no roadmap for incarcerated laborers to make a career out of the skills they learned.
One of the biggest barriers, Ramey explained, is a California law that bars those with felony convictions from earning the emergency medical certification that most municipal fire departments require.
It was “egregious,” Smith said in a 2020 interview with KQED News. “You have this labor pool of people that are just sitting here and underutilized only because [of] an issue of perception.”
Despite their training and experience in the field, Smith and Ramey had to start at square one to build a career in wildland firefighting after being released.
It would take them roughly three years to climb back to a position equal to their role while incarcerated. After being denied from a handful of crews, it wouldn’t be until the summer of 2015 when a state emergency declaration opened up an easier pathway for hundreds of people, including themselves, to join the professional ranks.
Needing more bodies to fight what was at the time a record-breaking fire season, the hiring process was temporarily made much easier.
Throughout the ordeal, the pair prioritized going to prison fire camps and talking to incarcerated people about finding jobs in the Forest Service once they were released.
They saw a need to put their “work on paper” and institutionalize a program connecting recently released prisoners with professional firefighting posts.
Through their nonprofit, they partner with local governments to give on-the-job training for formerly incarcerated people, help people with state firefighting applications, and offer a community support system for people navigating the difficult process.
In less than six months, participants in the FFRP program receive the same training they would get in a yearslong state firefighting academy — and they’re paid at least $15 an hour. Training includes field work, hiking, practicing plowing and cutting down fields, and equipment training in their new San Bernardino office.
In addition to the paid transitional work in fire prevention, the program provides formerly incarcerated people access to social workers who help ease their reentry process, life skill seminars, and access to housing and mental health care.
In 2020, Ramey and Smith were influential in getting California Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a law that made it easier for prison camp fire crews to have their records expunged in hopes of removing a significant barrier to seeking a job as a firefighter.
In April, the pair received a $250,000 private foundation grant to expand the program to other parts of the state beyond Southern California.
“I think that the world is finally accepting that we’ll need everyone, even abnormal and complex folks, to address the situations we created and have tried to keep quiet,” said Ramey.
“We got to acknowledge our weaknesses and mistakes and say that it is OK to work on them as individuals because we need everyone to combat the world’s issues.”
That kind of community rehabilitation, he says, will help quell and contain more fires than just the ones ripping through California.
“What are we doing if not trying to make this world a better place?”