Even when one part of our justice system tries to do the right thing, the good is usually undone by some other stupid policy. Danielle Allen in the Post:
As the nation has come to know, California depends on incarcerated people for the hard, dangerous work of fighting wildfires, a situation that has existed since World War II. Like all firefighters, those who have joined crews while serving prison sentences are heroes. My beloved cousin Michael, now dead, did time in California’s system from 1995 to 2006 and was one of those firefighters. In 2003, he fought what was then the biggest fire in California’s history. It was the best year of his life, I believe. This is so wrong that I weep to write it.
In letters and a journal, Michael wrote about what it meant to him to fight fires. “When I had got up to the front the flames were high and hot. I could feel myself growing stronger instantly. . . . Sometimes I was 3 to 4 feet from the fire and at other times I was two feet away. As I worked I could feel my arms and shoulders become heavy as mortar stones. But that only fueled me.” He took pride in being given one of the toughest jobs on the crew: “Some underestimate the work of using a saw during a fire which is why many don’t last on the saw. To use the saw takes strength, determination, and heart. It is a very grueling task and probably the most important one.” Whereas for most of his time in prison, Michael saw “a hill of years to climb,” in 2003, he wrote, “Time is flying by so fast I can hardly keep up with the days.”
The most painful part of Michael’s reentry was that there was no way for him to be considered for employment on any of the fire crews he’d worked with. He’d gone to jail after committing three robberies and an attempted carjacking in a three-day period. He was 15, and it was his first arrest. Now, 11 years on, Michael had found his calling — tear-inducing, breath-smothering work fighting wildfires. The fire camps, though, were not in Los Angeles, and the law required Michael to be paroled back to the county where he had committed his crimes. The path he’d found during incarceration was no longer available to him.
This is the great wrong of California’s inmate firefighting program. It shows us exactly what offenders need to set their lives to rights: the opportunity for meaningful and recognized work that connects them to society and positive social relationships. Yet the program is based on a system of justice that largely denies people such pathways — mass incarceration.
Years and years in prison inevitably deplete a healthy capacity for social connectedness. Inmates who successfully reenter society must overcome that; they have to do the time and undo the time. Firefighting helped Michael undo the time, but he couldn’t extend that experience after he was released.
The inmate firefighting program has always seemed to me like a great idea; I have read other pieces over the years by men who felt saved by it. But why, oh why, do we have these crazy policies that prevent men the state has trained to fight fires (at considerable expense) from fighting fires after release? The array of rigid rules that keeps everyone from even trying to do the right thing makes me gnash my teeth, and I don't understand why we can't build into the system points where somebody can waive these rules when it would help both the ex-con and the community.