Inmates Fighting California Wildfires Are More Likely to Get Hurt, Records Show

Inmates Fighting California Wildfires Are More Likely to Get Hurt, Records Show

“Roughly 1,500 currently incarcerated people have stepped up in the last 24 hours to combat the fires as part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) volunteer firefighting program, called the Conservation Camp Program. For them, the dangers can prove disastrous—even deadly.

More than 1,000 inmate firefighters required hospital care between June 2013 and August 2018, according to data obtained by TIME through FOIA requests. They are more than four times as likely, per capita, to incur object-induced injuries, such as cuts, bruises, dislocations and fractures, compared with professional firefighters working on the same fires. Inmates were also more than eight times as likely to be injured after inhaling smoke and particulates compared with other firefighters.”

Root & Rebound Executive Director Katherine Katcher is quoted “If you’re good enough to fight fires while you’re inside, you should be good enough to fight fires when you’re outside,” she says. “They’re doing the life-saving work, they’re earning the skills, and when they get out, they can’t do those jobs.”


November 17, 2018

Announcing the launch of Debt Free Justice California

Today, we proudly announce the official launch of Debt Free Justice California (“DFJC”). We are a concerned group of legal advocates, policy experts, researchers, and—most importantly—movement-building organizations led by impacted people. Building on the recent momentum of local criminal justice reform efforts throughout California, this statewide coalition will put a stop to the unfair ways our criminal legal system drains wealth from vulnerable communities.

      Through the strategic collaboration of our dozens of member organizations, DFJC aims to reduce the harm of the criminal legal system while also shrinking its reach. Our current focus is to eliminate the harmful administrative and other criminal justice fees placed on people who have served their sentence, entangling them in a spiral of debt and creating massive barriers as they strive to move forward with their lives.

     Momentum is building for criminal fees reform. In 2016, California enacted legislation ending juvenile administrative fees statewide. In 2018, San Francisco repealed all county-authorized fees and waived over $30 million in outstanding criminal justice debt owed by 21,000, mostly low-income, San Franciscans. In September 2018, the Alameda County Public Protection Committee recommended that the Board similarly eliminate all county-authorized criminal fees, and the County of Los Angeles County eliminated its public defender registration fee in 2017.

   Now is the time to think bigger, broader, and more critically about how systems of oppression can and must be dismantled. What’s at stake is not simply a matter of good or bad fiscal policy, but a system of entrenched racism that leads to over-policing, over incarceration, and the downstream impact of wealth extraction from already vulnerable communities. DFJC endeavors to not only seek solutions but to explicitly name the problems. Most importantly, we aim to contribute to the movement for fairness and equity through radical transformation and envisioning of what true justice looks like. We hope that you will join us in our fight.

Debt Free Justice California


DFJC is facilitated by EBCLC and ACLU of Southern California, and powered by dozens of member organizations throughout California, including Root & Rebound.  Find out more information here:

Inmates are fighting California wildfires for a dollar an hour

Inmates are fighting California wildfires for a dollar an hour

Root & Rebound ED Katherine Katcher was recently interviewed by Brent Bambury for Day 6 on CBC radio for a segment about the incarcerated people currently fighting wildfires in California and their prospects for becoming career firefighters once they are released.

"We have a state that is set up to rely on this kind of labour and be okay and comfortable using it when people are inside," Katherine told Day 6.

"It leads to people who've been serving their sentences and giving their lives to the state of California. It leaves them homeless and jobless when they get out.”

Click the link below to hear the piece:

As Inmates, They Fight California’s Fires. As Ex-Convicts, Their Firefighting Prospects Wilt. - NY Times

As Inmates, They Fight California’s Fires. As Ex-Convicts, Their Firefighting Prospects Wilt. - NY Times

About 1,500 inmates in California prisons are helping the state fight wildfires, including the Camp Fire, for several dollars a day. Yet after inmates with firefighting experience are released, doors at fire departments are often closed.

Root & Rebound Executive Director Katherine Katcher is quoted extensively. “Our state has the opportunity to improve its laws to do better,” she said. “It’s not just about saying a program is rehabilitative. That’s just a word. Do the right thing.”

By Mihir Zaveri

Inmate firefighters are battling California’s deadliest fires

Inmate firefighters are battling California’s deadliest fires

"The environment is coercive," said Katherine Katcher, founder and executive director of California-based non-profit Root & Rebound, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter society. "People welcome any opportunity to get out earlier, to get back to their families, back to their lives and make money."

Katcher's non-profit, in partnership with 50 additional criminal justice reform organizations, spent the past year pushing for the passage of three bills in the California legislature. A weakened version of the bill prohibiting the Department of Consumer Affairs from denying or revoking licenses unless a criminal conviction is directly related to the job passed in September.

The third bill, specifically targeting the prohibitive EMT licensing system necessary to become a firefighter, was voted down in favor of collecting more data on the number of ex-offenders denied certification every year.

Despite the outcome, Katcher said advocates will continue fighting. "This isn't a free pass, no one is advocating for a free-for-all," she said. "We're saying there should be a fair and accurate consideration of someone's record and its relation to their ability to do the job."

By: Mikayla Bean

Inmates earn $1 an hour fighting California's massive wildfires

Inmates earn $1 an hour fighting California's massive wildfires

"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," Katherine Katcher of Root and Rebound, which works on prison re-entry issues in California, told Reason. The state's licensing rules, Katcher said, "shut people out of living wage careers that they are trained and qualified for solely because of old, expunged, and irrelevant convictions." by Bonnie Kristian

Employers are slowly turning to ex-offenders to fill open jobs in a worker-hungry economy

Employers are slowly turning to ex-offenders to fill open jobs in a worker-hungry economy

As the job market gets tighter, employers are slowly turning to nonprofits such as Rise, Emerge, Building Better Futures, Summit Academy, Genesys Works, Goodwill Easter Seals and others that help former felons build skills and land decent jobs.

“We are safer when these guys have jobs and housing,” said CEO Dan Pfarr of 180 Degrees. “We are their step from prison to the civilian world.”

And Rise and its national partner, Root & Rebound, which advocates for former inmates, have received great response from local employers for their “Minnesota Employers’ Fair Chance Hiring Guide.”

The guide takes employers through legal compliance and risk minimization, background checks, the rewards of hiring a second-chance worker, best practices for “onboarding” former inmates and strategies for helping them integrate into the workforce.

By Neal St. Anthony in the Star Tribune

PRESS RELEASE - AB 2138 - Governor Brown signs landmark legislation to remove barriers to licensing and decrease recidivism

Contact: Sonja Tonnesen, Deputy Director, Root & Rebound, (510) 279-4662

Governor Brown signs landmark legislation to remove barriers to licensing and decrease recidivism

Sacramento, CA—This past weekend, Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown signed AB 2138, authored by Assemblymembers David Chiu and Evan Low, to remove barriers for occupational licensing for close to 8 million Californians living with criminal records.  
AB 2138 was supported by a coalition of 50+ organizations, including East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), Root & Rebound, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), All of Us or None, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Alameda County Public Defender, PolicyLink, the Alliance for Boys & Men of Color, the National Association of Social Workers, and many more.
AB 2138 opens pathways to family-sustaining careers to millions of Californians who have past justice system contact. The bill ensures that close to 40 licensing boards governed under the Department of Consumer Affairs cannot deny people otherwise trained and qualified for licenses due to irrelevant and dismissed convictions. Specifically, the bill creates a seven-year “washout” period after which licensing agencies cannot consider crimes that are not serious felonies, sex offenses, or relevant financial crimes. It also eliminates requirements that applicants self-disclose the details of their record prior to issuance of a California Department of Justice background check, freeing applicants from disclosing from memory alone and refocusing agencies on the facts of an applicant’s record. AB 2138 also sets out criteria for considering an applicant’s rehabilitation and bans the use of dismissed and sealed convictions, convictions for which a person received a Certificate of Rehabilitation, and non-conviction acts such as arrests that never led to conviction to deny licensure.

Studies have shown that states with more fair processes for occupational licensing have dramatically lower recidivism rates. 

Many Californians are denied licenses to work in jobs they are qualified to perform due to old or irrelevant criminal records. In some cases, people are denied licenses for jobs they have performed successfully for years in the past without incident or were trained to do while incarcerated, simply because of a conviction for a minor offense unrelated to their job.
With AB 2138, Californians with criminal records will be able to access licenses for close to 40 occupations they were previously barred from or very unlikely to receive. Covered occupations range from automotive repair to psychology to cosmetology.
The signing of AB 2138 is a huge victory for all Californians.


Video - Governor Brown signs AB 2138 (Chiu)

Co-Sponosred by Root & ReboundEast Bay Community Law CenterAnti-Recidivism CoalitionAlliance for Boys and Men of Color, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, this law removes the blanket ban on felony convictions for certain Consumer Board occupational licenses, opening access to meaningful employment for hundreds of thousands of Californians.

Video - Senate Hearing on AB 2293

This video features a CA Senate Health Committee hearing at which Mathew T. an Anti-Recidivism Member who was previously a firefighter at a juvenile fire camp during his incarceration, testified to the necessity of AB 2293 (described below). The bill is heard from 1:06:42 - 1:17:40 in the video.

AB 2293 by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino) was signed into law by Governor Brown. The bill requires local emergency medical service (EMS) agencies to submit data on the approval or denial of EMT-I and EMT-II applicants with criminal records. The bill will also create greater transparency in the hiring practices of local EMS agencies, and will contribute to a better understanding of how to achieve more equitable hiring practices for job applicants with a criminal history.

“If a person is convicted of a crime and pays their debt to society, that one mistake should not become an economic life sentence  that shuts them out of the job market even after they have completed rehabilitation.” Assemblymember Reyes continued, “AB 2293 will begin the process of diagnosing the full scope of the licensing barriers that prevent many in our state from attaining positions that require these licenses but flatly deny them based on the presence of any criminal history.”

“AB 2293 is an important first step to fixing California’s counter-productive licensing policies regarding EMT’s and Firefighters,” said Jael Myrick, the Clean Slate Practice Program Coordinator at the East Bay Community Law Center, and a Co-Sponsor of the bill. “Over 8 million Californians, including many who may have fought fires as prisoners, face unnecessary barriers when they try to get licensed to work in the very fields they are most qualified for and where we need people most.”

Approximately 30% of all jobs in the state of California require some type of license, up from the national average of around 25%. At the same time, approximately 1 in every 5 Californians have some sort of criminal background that leads to a growing segment of our citizenry that are procedurally locked out of a large portion of the job market. In 2017, over 4,500 inmates served in the California Conservation Camp program and contributed over 10 million work hours to fighting forest fires and conservation efforts around the state. However, upon release and for years later, they are locked out of the job market by their criminal records.

For more information on AB 2293 or to read the language of the bill, click here.

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