Criminal-turned-firefighters find a new life on the front lines

“The worst thing for me was the feeling of letting my family down,” says the 40-year-old married father of four. “That was the hardest part for me. I’m a vendor.”

Reyna and his mentors are confident that he will soon be earning a good starting salary as a firefighter, with excellent benefits when he leaves VTC.

Reyna pleaded guilty to first degree manslaughter for the 2005 shooting of Daniel Rodriguez in the town of Alpine, San Diego. The prosecutor in the case, David Grapilon, told CNN that Reyna was not the trigger and that he had no problem with Reyna, who had adopted strict state prison rules on how to behave when working in a detention center, becoming a firefighter.

“I’d rather see the inmates doing something productive, like working in the fire camps, than sitting inside and watching TV all day,” said the San Diego County assistant district attorney. “And there are safeguards. The inmate firefighter program has strict rules about who is accepted.”

Reyna is now part of a growing list of former inmates who are or have been hired full-time by fire departments only California endures massive forest infernos caused by the climate crisis. CalFire reports the eight largest fires in state history, based on acreage, all of which have occurred since 2017.

“We are in unprecedented times here in California,” said Jeremy Brant, CalFire battalion commander. “We see the environment changing, the increase in fire behavior and the great growth of fires. The fire season is getting longer.”

Brant believes the center, which he runs with CalFire department head Mike Salas, can help meet demand for more firefighters in California. Launched in 2018, the VTC was designed to take ex-convicts who fought fires as prison camp members and prepare them for a career as firefighters.

CalFire estimates that 229 former inmates are enrolled in the VTC as of 2018. Of those, 136 got jobs, most at CalFire, and 56 are now in storage.

Before their release, inmates can learn firefighting skills at other camps operated by the state’s Conservation Camp program. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that while firefighters are still incarcerated, they make between $2.90 and $5.12 a day at the camp, depending on their skill level. During an active emergency, CalFire pays prisoners an additional dollar per hour. The California code states that pay for all prisoners, including those who work in kitchens or laundry rooms, ranges from 8 to 37 cents an hour. Prison camp is considered a perk reserved for inmates who have shown good behavior.

According to a state spokesman, California’s broader conservation camp program is home to 1,216 men and 43 women, a demographic proportion proportional to the state’s total prison population.

To be accepted into the VTC program after serving their time, participants must be carefully screened, have minimum prison status, and be recommended by a prison camp supervisor.

Former prisoners spend five nights a week in the VTC and sleep in barracks.

The training center runs a free, 18-month program that allows felons to hone the firefighting skills learned in the Conservation Camp program. Former inmates remain at Camarillo Barracks Monday through Friday.

It’s not just firefighting drills or classroom instruction on how to behave in infernos that lead the ex-convicts to success. The VTC offers comprehensive mental health and addiction counseling in partnership with the California Department of Parole, the California Conservation Corps, and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. According to Salas, the program is funded by CalFire and the California prison system.

“At VTC we create a mentoring environment where they can be safe,” said Brant. “Too many guys get out of prison; they re-offend because they kill old friends, old gang members, whatever.”

A firefighter works during the Palisades fire in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood October 21, 2019 in Los Angeles.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom cleared roadblocks to inmates set to become firefighters by signing a bill on a cinder bank surrounded by burned trees in September 2020.

“Inmates who have been on the front lines fighting historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter,” Newsom said.

The bill also gave courts the power to erase the criminal records of fire department inmates, which had often made it harder for former inmates to be hired. The courts can plead guilty or nolo contendere, enter a plea of ​​not guilty, or set aside convictions.
Inmates fighting wildfires in California for better chances of firefighting jobs after incarceration

One of the first ex-camp inmates to have their files wiped is Jose Santana, who trained at VTC, graduated from the program in spring 2021 and was hired by the CalFire Tulare Station Unit soon after.

Santana served three years in prison for a crime for which he repeats and to this day apologizes. The ex-con says while drunk on Jamison whiskey, high on meth and without sleep for five days, he smashed a liquor bottle into his then-girlfriend’s head.

“It’s my fault, I had no idea what I had done,” Santana said.

Santana served three years of a five-year sentence. He described massive brawls at Wasco Prison and Sierra Corrections Center, in which inmates hit each other with broomsticks and kicked each other in the head. The guards’ smoke canisters, tossed to break up the melee, cast a gray haze.

“A war zone,” Santana said. “I had to get out of there. I heard about Mountain Home, a fire camp for inmates. Maybe I could.”

According to his bosses, Santana excelled at Mountain Home, which helped him land a job as a firefighter that he says makes his two sons proud. He overheard one of his boys bragging about a headset while playing Fortnight with others.

“‘Yeah, well, my dad’s doing a little thing,'” Santana recounted, as his son said. “‘He fights fire!’ “

When fires ravaged California in 2021, Santana gained experience and overtime.

“Last year, with all the overtime, I made an estimate of $86,000 to $89,000 total,” Santana said. “That’s a big difference from making a few dollars a day as an inmate.”

On a rare day during the scorching fire season, Santana handed out CalFire stickers at a parade in Tulare, dressed in navy blue attire.

“It just felt so good to wear this uniform and give back to this amazing community,” Santana said. “I smiled and thought none of these people would ever know I wore prison orange.”

Santana told CNN he will soon complete a paramedic program at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria and take on a larger leadership role at CalFire.

There is no VTC-like facility or other training center for female ex-convict firefighters in California, but Salas predicts that state agencies will establish an all-female version of the VTC sooner rather than later.

“Once we start figuring out how to expand,” Salas said. “Where our women’s barracks will be.”

John Reyna can’t predict if he’ll end up in a barracks full-time anywhere at CalFire. He has applied for several positions at CalFire and his dream is in San Diego County.

As he stood on the VTC grounds, where he would eventually train as a company commander, sweating, marching and barking orders, he became thoughtful.

“I keep reminding myself, never forget what happened,” he said. “Never forget the people you hurt and their families. Start doing good to everyone around you and repay it.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the wage rate that incarcerated firefighters earn at the camp was incorrectly reported.

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