Treat all firefighters equally

 

Editor’s note: Pablo Aguirre received this letter from his brother, Francisco X. Aguirre, a participant in Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program, who asked him to share it with High Country News. This letter has been edited for length and clarity.

Thank you for highlighting the heroics and challenges of imprisoned Arizona wildland firefighter crews in your recent article (“From Prison to Fireline,” 8/5/19). We are presently lobbying Arizona House Rep. Walter Blackman,  chairman of a House ad hoc committee “tasked to ... study, gather input, and develop recommendations regarding the earned release credit (ERC) system for prisoners ...” to introduce and sponsor legislation that would make imprisoned wildland firefighters eligible for ERCs. Currently, we serve at least 85% of our time. Similar legislation in other Western states allows wildland firefighters to earn one day of credit per two days served, serving 50%. The wildland fire program for Arizona prisoners was started in 1984 and is composed of 13 crews, including an all-female crew from Perryville, and Phoenix One, an ex-inmate crew based out of Apache Junction. At any given time, there are between 250 and 350 inmates working as wildland firefighters.  On average, each crew responds to between 18 to 22 fires and prescribed burns per year.

As wildland firefighters, we perform the same functions and are exposed to the same dangers as any other civilian crew. We must complete and pass the same physical and classroom requirements as any civilian wildland fire crew. Imprisoned wildland firefighters make $1 per hour for “project work,” like prescribed burns or firewising, and $1.50 per hour when dispatched to a wildland fire. Why do inmates join the wildland fire crew? Here are some of the answers provided in an informal survey of Florence’s fire crew (spoiler alert: It is certainly not for the pay): character building, discipline, physical and mental challenges, prison prestige, time away from the prison environment, helping the community, redemption, diversity, learning new skills, future career opportunities, an outdoor lifestyle, helping the environment, dignity. Since its inception, the wildland fire program has changed inmates’ lives and resulted in lower recidivism, personal transformation, better and broader post-prison job opportunities, personal growth, facilitated re-entry, and made our communities safer. Legislation that would provide earned release credits for imprisoned wildland firefighters will enhance the quality of recruits and reward those who risk their lives to make our communities safer.

Francisco X. Aguirre
Wildland firefighter, Florence, Arizona
Earned Release Credits Committee

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