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California's inmate firefighters can now become professionals once they're free

Just one day after declaring a state of emergency in California's Siskiyou County due to the ongoing wildfires raging across his state, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a new law on Friday aimed at easing the transition for some incarcerated peoples to find new careers as firefighters and other emergency workers after their release from prison.

AB 2147, authored by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, officially reforms the state's decades-old prison labor system, in which prisoners are trained and put to work as underpaid firefighters to augment existing professional crews. The newly signed law now accelerates the process by which those incarcerated peoples who have served as firefighters can expunge their criminal record upon release — a move that will allow them to apply for full time careers as emergency workers without having a criminal record to divulge as part of the application process. Those convicted of some violent offenses would be ineligible for the newly accelerated process.

"I think that after seeing all these young men and women stand side by side with our other fire crews and knowing that they had no hope of entering that profession, I knew that it was wrong and that we needed to do something about it," Reyes told NBC shortly before Newsom signed her bill into law.

California's slave labor system has come under particular scrutiny lately, as large swaths of the state prisoner population has been unable to serve as firefighters, due to the coronavirus pandemic raging through the penal system. This past July more than a quarter of the facilities used to train inmates as firefighters had been placed on lockdown because of the virus.

There are currently some 3,700 incarcerated people in California's prison firefighting program, the majority of whom are fire line-qualified, according to Reyes bill. Since 2017, three prison laborers have died while actively fighting fires.

"Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter," Newsom said in a statement accompanying his bill signing. Those inmates reportedly receive just $1 an hour for their work.

While the new law is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of rehabilitation, a question worth asking is: why does California allow something that comes dangerously close to qualifying as slave labor to begin with?