How Formerly Incarcerated Firefighters Are Getting the Jobs and Pay They Deserve
In 2014, Brandon Smith—unemployed but trained as a wildland firefighter—applied for upwards of 15 positions at local and state fire departments in California. Qualified for the work after two years of firefighting, he spent nearly 18 months fielding rejections, not because of his credentials, but because he couldn’t pass a background check. One local department offered him a job, but then rescinded it when they saw he had formerly been incarcerated.
There are thousands of other people like Smith, formerly incarcerated and trained as firefighters, who face a number of hurdles when applying for jobs. To overcome these systemic barriers, Smith and fellow wildland firefighter Royal Ramey founded the Fire and Forestry Recruitment Program, aimed at training and helping formerly incarcerated people find employment as firefighters.
As California enters the most catastrophic fire season on record, the work of wildland firefighters is more critical than ever, yet the state is facing a shortage of potential workers. For years, the state has lacked a formalized process for incorporating firefighters that have been incarcerated into its ranks. This year that could change.
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It all began with the simple act of writing a letter. A group of folks gathered to begin a pen pal program under the leadership of Rev Karen Mooney from the UU Prison Ministry of Illinois UUPMI. Over time, unexpectedly and with some hesitation, real relationships were forged with people incarcerated in the Illinois Correctional Complex. As they learned of the horrors suffered by their friends behind bars, a project was born and UCH took up the cause of reinstating Parole in the state of Illinois.
Writing letters and forging friendships is an ongoing project at UCH. The group meets quarterly to compare their experiences and to support one another in the ongoing process of reaching out and connecting with other folks - folks we might never know in our daily lives. It has been a powerful and transformative ministry in UCH