Plum gig or slave labor? California inmates fight wildfires for $1 an hour

More than 3,000 inmate volunteer firefighters are performing the back-straining labor, according to Cal Fire. They’re clearing brush and digging lines for the Ferguson, Carr and Mendocino Complex fires, which have torched a combined 577,000 acres of California land in another historic season. Despite their training and experience fighting some of the nation's most severe wildfires, these incarcerated firefighters face extremely narrow pathways to industry work after release. The problem lies with emergency medical technician licenses, said Katherine Katcher, founder and executive director of the re-entry advocacy group Root & Rebound in Oakland.

They fought wildfires as inmates, but California won't let them become firefighters when free

They fought wildfires as inmates, but California won't let them become firefighters when free

To become a firefighter in California, the state requires certification as an emergency medical technician. But because occupational licensing laws bar most people with criminal records from earning EMT licenses, formerly-incarcerated people can’t get the job. "What's the point of letting people out,” prisoner rights advocate Katherine Katcher rightly asks “if there's still an invisible prison around them?"

As Prisoners, They Can Help Fight California's Huge Wildfires. As Free People, They're Banned From Being Firefighters

"The persistent, horrific wildfires year after year make this human rights issue even more pressing for the men and women fighting these fires every day who cannot do so once released," says Katherine Katcher, founder and executive director of Root and Rebound, a California-based nonprofit that helps the formerly incarcerated find jobs after getting out of prison. Katcher tells Reason that the state's discriminatory licensing rules "shut people out of living wage careers that they are trained and qualified for solely because of old, expunged, and irrelevant convictions".

Tamer Fund for Social Ventures Chooses Three New Social Ventures to Add to its Growing Portfolio

Root & Rebound was selected, along with two other social enterprises, as a Tamer Fund for Social Ventures awardee after participating in an application screening round, a due diligence process with student teams as part of a Columbia Business School course, and a final pitch to the fund’s investment board. Read the full press release here. 

KQED Newscast - Katherine Katcher on Criminal Fees

KQED'S Alex Emslie interviewed Root & Rebound Executive Director Katherine Katcher for his 5/21 report on the SF Board of Supervisor's vote to stop collecting fines and fees related to probation and electronic monitoring. These fees are levied primarily on people who are indigent and people of color, those who are most impacted by mass incarceration. Katherine explains why this decision is an important step in the right direction. Listen here.

New Campaign Tackles Incarceration, HIV Rates Among Women Of Color

Capital Public Radio out of Sacramento interviewed Root & Rebound Executive Director Katherine Katcher and Director of Finance and Administration Carmen Garcia about our upcoming Reentry and Employment Initiative for reentering women of color in the Fresno Area, in  partnership with the  The California Wellness Foundation, and the need for trauma-informed support for justice-involved women of color more broadly. Read the full story here. 

State Lawmakers and Advocates Announce Bills to Reduce Barriers to Economic Opportunity for Formerly Incarcerated Californians

Legislation will prohibit State departments from denying professional licenses to Californians with non-violent offenses. Read more about it here.

Cal Wellness Invests $13 Million to Meet Health Needs of Women of Color

Women’s health – and the health of women of color in particular – are at risk. In response, The California Wellness Foundation announced today that it is investing $13 million over five years in two initiatives that address health issues that disproportionately impact women of color. Through its Reentry Women and the HIV/AIDS/STIs and Women of Color initiatives, Cal Wellness is countering threats to the wellness of women and girls of color. Read more here

A Health Funder Puts Women of Color Front and Center of Latest Work

The California Wellness Foundation is putting up $13 million over the next five years to better health outcomes for women of color through two distinct initiatives tackling issues that disproportionately affect nonwhite women. Part of the funding will go toward treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. The rest will support an initiative in partnership with Root & Rebound focused on reentry and jobs for formerly incarcerated women of color in the Fresno area. Read the full article here. 

Minnesota Non-profit Hosts Community Forum on Hiring Formerly Incarcerated People

Twin Cities RISE, which trains low-income adults for employment, has developed the "Minnesota Employers’ Fair Chance Hiring Guide" to support efforts to recruit, hire, train and retain job seekers with criminal records; Minnesota is now the third state to produce this guide as a resource for employers. The guide was developed in partnership with Root & Rebound. Read about the forum here

Root & Rebound selected as one of Namaste Foundation's Exceptional Nonprofits in Criminal Justice Reform!

Namaste Foundation has profiled organizations that are are doing important work to address the interconnected challenges of mass incarceration and structural racism.  Root & Rebound was selected this year as of one of ten exceptional nonprofits that are tackling various aspects of criminal justice reform, and working to repair harm and rebuild communities. See the entire list here.

State licensing boards block inmate re-entry opportunities

Check out Katherine's recently published Op Ed in the East Bay Times that speaks powerfully to the unchecked power of the state’s almost 50 occupational licensing boards that control entry to more than 200 professions, and block thousands of Californians from the careers they are trained for. We look forward to pursuing policy reform efforts in 2018 but in the meantime, read more about this critical issue here!

BHSI Fellow, Katherine Katcher, speaking at Chicago Ideas Week

"Our generation is waking up to the notion that we criminalize poor in this country and that we criminalize people of color at alarming rates. So whether you have  a long arrest history isn't probative of your guilt or your worth, it's probative of how many police officers are on your street, are monitoring your daily lives, your parents' lives, and the kind of world you grow up in." - Katherine Katcher at Chicago Ideas week. Watch more of this inspiring discussion with all the 2017 Bluhm-Helfand Fellows here!

THE ECONOMIST: Preventing people with past justice system involvement from working is silly

BUT for the heroic work of state prisoners, the wildfires that recently swept through northern California would have been even more destructive. Read more about how former prisoners are being systematically restricted from careers they have trained for and and braved their lives for here

How inmates who fight wildfires are later denied firefighting jobs

Many prisons offer educational and job training programs for inmates hoping to work in fields like cosmetology, firefighting or even law after serving their time. But due to complicated occupational licensing laws, which often automatically deny applicants with criminal histories, men and women who take advantage of these training programs are released from prison only to discover it is next to impossible to be hired for their acquired skills. Read more here.