The Corner

Politics & Policy

Firefighting Inmates Put the Lie to Occupational Regulations

Inmate firefighters return from setting a fire break along Highway 20 during the Rocky Fire in Lake County, Calif., in 2015. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

As wildfires sweep through California, a team of over 2,000 volunteers has taken to the the flames with firefighting equipment to keep the damage at bay. The team, which consists of prisoners, has been successfully fighting fires in the state for years, and has proved up to the task. (They would not still be charged with it, otherwise.) Many such inmates, then, leave prison with years of firefighting experience– yet the job, in the civilian world, is off-limits to them.

Because prospective firemen are generally required to have EMT licenses, and because licensing boards are disinclined to issue those to people with criminal histories, there is little prospect of the prisoners continuing their work when they leave prison. Or, to put it another way, in the midst of a national firefighter shortage, regulations are locking out from the profession a set of experienced firefighters from doing a job that they are qualified for.

This problem is not confined to firefighting. Similar regulatory barriers mean that prisoners often leave confinement with job experience that serves them no benefit in civilian life. Many jobs that prisoners do on the inside, such as barbering and hairdressing, are off-limits to those with a criminal history, because they require licenses in most jurisdictions, and those licenses served to filter out such people. The popular Netflix show, Orange is the New Black, features a character who is an experienced manicurist and plans to pursue the job upon her release, but finds out to her chagrin that occupational regulations keep the job off-limits to former criminals.

About a third of jobs in the U.S. require an occupational license (up from 5 percent in the 1950s). That high proportion itself understates the problem, because when it comes to low level jobs, just about everything that comes to mind, from masonry to TV installation to floristry, requires a license. Some of these licenses are automatically off-limits to ex-cons, but even those that aren’t tend to be so burdensome to obtain that it is a financial impossibility for many poor people, as they must commit to weeks of training, hundreds of dollars in fees, and other requirements. Such barriers to entry incentivize recidivism and working off-the-books, because otherwise productive people find themselves without an option to do otherwise.

This area is long overdue for reform, but I have an immediate suggestion, in light of the heroism of California’s prison firemen: Even if EMT licensing boards wish to retain their rejection of people with a criminal history in general, they ought to make an exception for those former prisoners who have proven themselves by working as firefighters or in prison clinics. It will only address a small share of the problems wrought by labor restrictions on the poor, but it is a start, and will combat the shortage of firefighters, which poses a real safety issue in many states.


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