Arizona, in contrast to other states, grants its prisoners very few early release credits in exchange for their assistance in putting out wildfires.
Francisco Aguirre-Proano was able to see the flames far before the odor of smoke reached his nostrils or the licking heat lifted every hair on the back of his neck. In fact, he saw the flames long before any of those things happened.

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Mount Lemmon shone brightly, standing out like a beacon against the gloomy background of the highway.

Aguirre-Proano experienced feelings of gratitude as he watched the flames engulf the peak, which was the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains, which are located to the north of Tucson, Arizona. He and his crew of incarcerated firefighters would need the adrenaline rush to finish the job.

The sole source of light available to the crew as they hiked deeper into the inferno were the embers that were over their heads.

The month was October 2019, and the crew had been on the mountain for around a week at this point. After that, the men were driven back to Florence State Prison in vans while still covered in soot and ash. Once there, they were required to change out of their firefighting gear and into prison garb.

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The institution of slavery and involuntary servitude was deemed unconstitutional by the United States Constitution’s 13th Amendment, “except as a punishment for crime.” Since the amendment was passed in 1865, there has been a significant increase in the use of prison labor. In the state of Louisiana, which is home to the former plantation that is now a prison known as Angola, 87 percent of those who are confined are required to work. In the Northern states, such as New York, a large percentage of persons who are incarcerated work. In New York, 73% of those who are incarcerated have jobs.

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In August of 2018, inmates all over the country participated in a strike with a list of demands that included “all persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor for their time spent there.” Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the group that organized the prison strike, used the hashtag “#Abolishthe13th” as their organizing theme. This is a reference to the 13th Amendment. When a report was published by The Intercept a month ago claiming that Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg had utilized incarcerated prisoners to make campaign phone calls, the topic of prison labor was brought back into the spotlight nationally.

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Because of a cooperation between the Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the Department of Corrections in the state of Arizona, inmates like as Aguirre-Proano have been given the opportunity to work as firefighters in the state since 1984. In the past three decades, thousands of inmates in Arizona have participated in a voluntary program that was designed to fight the increasing number of wildfires and address a shortage of professional firefighters in the state. The program was initiated in response to the fact that Arizona had a shortage of professional firefighters.

An inmate must fulfill the same stringent requirements as a professional firefighter in order to be considered for the role of wildland firefighter, which is a person who helps put out fires on public land or in settlements that have been incorporated. This includes successfully completing a series of educational classes on topics such as safety, forestry, and emergency response, as well as a fitness test that consists of walking a three-mile course while carrying approximately 45 pounds on their backs, which is about half of what they might bear out in the field.

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Both the Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the Department of Corrections in the state of Arizona do not keep track of the amount of money the state saves by employing inmates on fire crews. However, according to Tiffany Davila, a public affairs officer for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management, “inmate crews provide additional people willing and able to do the work that might not otherwise exist.” This was stated in an interview with The Appeal.

The office of then-State Attorney General Kamala Harris in California fought a judgement from a federal court in 2014 that directed the state to extend its early-release program beyond only firefighting. The ruling ordered the state to expand its early-release program beyond just firefighting. Her office stated that an expansion would have a “severe impact on fire camp participation,” which would be a risky outcome at a time when California is experiencing a challenging fire season and severe drought.

After some time, the office withdrew its objection to the verdict; yet, there is little question that the use of jailed labor continues to save the state millions of dollars. By placing prisoners who were detained in its jails in Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Los Angeles County fire camps from October 2013 to September 2015, the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department was able to save $4.3 million over the course of that time period. It has been estimated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that using inmate labor to combat wildfires results in an annual savings of one hundred million dollars for the state.

In a similar vein, the program in Arizona is praised as a success by the state’s governor, Doug Ducey, as well as by the general public, many of whom are oblivious to the fact that the firefighters are serving time in prison. Today, people working on one of Arizona’s 12 prisoner firefighter crews wear the same clothes as nonincarcerated firemen. They also work free of chains, and there have been no documented escapes throughout the program’s existence. Arizona is home to a total of 12 prisoner firefighter crews.

According to Davila, “We get kudos on all of our [inmate] crews, all the time.” [Citation needed] “Whether it’s from private citizens, a town, or another fire department working the fire, about how good of a job they do,” “whether it’s from another fire department working the fire.” And that’s across the board.”

In spite of such praise, prisoners in the state earn just $1.50 an hour for fighting fires. This is despite the fact that the crews perform the same roles as professional local and state firefighters, and often work in tandem with other professional crews employed by the Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

Aguirre-Proano said so with a chuckle while describing the activity. “It’s the best adrenaline rush you can get for $1.50 an hour,” he remarked.

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And in contrast to the state of California, which gives incarcerated firefighters a “2-for-1 credit” that reduces their sentence by two days for every day they spend working to put out fires, Arizona only gives incarcerated firefighters a “1-for-6 credit,” which reduces their sentence by only one day for every six days they work.

However, a group of inmates doing time for firefighting-related offenses in Arizona is working to modify the law.

Francisco X. Aguirre-Proano is 58 years old, which makes him significantly older than the typical inmate firefighter. After a lengthy career in the real estate industry, he was sentenced to prison in March 2018 on accusations that included fraud in connection with a mortgage and forgery. He claimed that he joined a wildland firefighting crew for the sense of brotherhood and the opportunity to test himself. He stated, “I come from a different angle than most of these folks,” indicating that his perspective was unique. “But the thing we have in common is being a part of this crew, this fraternity if you will. And it’s sort of magical, because over time, you begin to see the change in people. Folks who have really transformed their lives.”

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“In many ways, this felt like my most direct path to redemption,” he said. “This has been my way to give back.”

Aguirre-Proano is a believer in the rehabilitative power of firefighting: He said members of his crew were in prison for drug-related offenses and that the program seemed to have a healing effect on them. “When you join a fire crew like this, you enter into a world of discipline. A world where you have to be accountable. When we go to a fire, those skills—leadership, integrity, responsibility—those skills are essential. Because my life is gonna depend on that guy right there. His life is going to depend on what I do. And I am just incredibly proud of these folks because I’ve seen their growth.”

However, Aguirre-Proano contends that there are more factors that work against incarcerated persons than there are factors that work in their favor. These factors include the low compensation, the long hours, and the potentially hazardous nature of the labor. “It’s not a black or white situation,” said Corene Kendrick, staff attorney at the nonprofit Prison Law Office, where she oversees the organization’s litigation in an ongoing case over conditions inside Arizona state prisons. “They enjoy the work, it’s an opportunity to give back to society, they’re out of the horrible conditions inside the prison and in the fresh air, but the tradeoff is that they’re getting paid less than minimum wage.”

We suggest Ms. Kendrick try  doing her job at the wage these men get to fight fire on a regular basis, and see how happy she is with it.  At the end of the day, the state needs these inmate firefighters more than these men need the jobs. Furthermore “fresh air” is available every day, on the rec yard, and a forest fire, typically is not known for is “fresh air”.  This is the equivalent of saying that a slave brought over on a boat should be happy they are escaping the horrible conditions of the slave boat on a plantation. It’s asinine at best, at worst it’s advocation of slavery. 

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“They enjoy the work, it’s an opportunity to give back to society, they’re out of the horrible conditions inside the prison and in the fresh air, but the tradeoff is that they’re getting paid less than minimum wage.”

Aguirre-Proano is of the opinion that the full potential of Arizona’s firefighting program could be realized if the state adopted the same credits system that California does, which is 2-for-1. He stated, “I learned that other Western states have been offering imprisoned wildland firefighters additional earned-release credits for decades.” “I learned that other Western states have been offering this,” he said. “So why not Arizona?”

 One of the most stringent sentencing laws in the country was enacted in Arizona in 1993, at the height of the country’s “tough on crime” era. These “truth in sentencing” laws eliminated parole for anyone who was sentenced after January 1, 1994, and required incarcerated people to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. These laws were among the toughest in the country. They have done nothing to acually stop crimes from being committed though. So, what good are harsh sentencing laws? They get politicians elected because the public thinks they are proactive. 

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In addition, the state grants very few pardons. To this day, Republican Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona has only approved one (in 2016). His Republican predecessor, Jan Brewer, who served as governor from 2009 until 2015, issued 13 pardons during her time in office. Her Democratic predecessor, Janet Napolitano, was responsible for the granting of 22 pardons.

Because of its policies, Arizona has become one of the states with the highest rate of incarceration in the United States. Between the years 1978 and 2015, the state of Arizona saw an increase in the number of people sentenced to jail from less than 200 to about 600 per 100,000 residents. The state is the seventh most jailed in the United States, with an incarceration rate of 877 individuals behind bars for every 100,000 residents.

In June, Governor Ducey approved Senate Bill 1310, which makes it possible for inmates convicted primarily of drug charges to be freed from prison after serving 70 percent of their sentence, rather than the 85 percent that is required by the state’s truth in sentencing rules. An investigation conducted by the Arizona Department of Corrections determined that 7,367 inmates were eligible for early release under SB 1310; however, to far, only roughly 506 inmates have been granted early release.

Additionally in the month of June, the House of Representatives of the state of Arizona appointed nine of its members to serve on an Earned Release Credits For Prisoners Ad Hoc Committee. The purpose of this committee is to investigate the current “earned release credit” program that is in place for people who are incarcerated. The position of chairperson of the committee has been given to Representative Walter Blackman.

Aguirre-Proano, who had previously begun researching the early-release mechanism for incarcerated firefighters in the state of California, started writing letters to Blackman in the month of July. Aguirre-Proano approached him with a request to take into consideration a bill that, similar to California’s system, would give incarcerated firemen in Arizona the opportunity to earn additional early-release credits.

The present policy of offering a one-day reduction in the sentence of an incarcerated firefighter for every six days spent fighting fires would be replaced by the proposed legislation, which would grant a one-day reduction in the sentence for every two days served in the field.

According to Aguirre-Proano, the accomplishments of his team are evidence of the effectiveness of earned-release programs. The Florence Wildland Crew evolved into a group that made significant contributions to society and helped save lives across the state when they were provided with the necessary support mechanisms.

Aguirre-Proano stated, “I put my hand in the fire (pun intended) for this legislation because I would say that the crews throughout Arizona are very similar.” “It would be a triumph that is reasonable and advantageous for all parties involved.”

By July, the other members of Aguirre-group Proano’s had come to the conclusion that they ought to make an effort to influence legislation. The Earned Release Credits Committee was established within Florence State Prison by Aguirre-Proano, Max Block, Adam Tronnier, Reed Ehmke, and Joseph Anderson. The committee is comprised of five guys. The group carried on with the practice of writing letters to Blackman, and they succeeded in persuading the other firefighters and the family members of the firefighters to do the same.

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“I know I want to pursue this after—this has made me find a career path after my incarceration,” Tronnier said in an interview with The Appeal. “This has made me find a career path after my incarceration.” “That’s huge really. It’s an identity that I’ve found. I’m not just an inmate, I’m a part of this crew. It makes you proud of who you are.”

Block, a squad boss on the crew who has been fighting fires for more than two years, said: “To the public, we might look just like inmates working on a job, but it’s more than that to us. It’s huge to us, it’s life-changing. I’m held accountable every single day for my actions and I have responsibilities that others rely on. And when you have that path laid out, it’s like, fuck, where has that been all my life? And we’ve finally made it here—it’s shitty that we’re here—but we’re finally got something, and we’re able to hold onto that. I don’t necessarily love this work, but I love what it does for me.”

In an email, Anderson wrote: “It’s taught me everything I need for when I get out. First, a trade and skill I can use. Second, a work ethic to keep a job. Third, how to communicate with employers and employees. To have passion, patience, and kindness.”

The other fireman company in Florence Prison is called the Superstition Crew, and its squad leader, Kevin Boyle, has been a member of that crew for the past four years. He said in an email: “This program has brought me closer to my daughter and helped me become a better father. I’ve learned that you don’t need drugs and alcohol to have a good time, and I’ve met a lot of people along the way that have helped me, and would give good references for me. I have been offered plenty of job opportunities, and that makes me feel so much better going forth with my future.”

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Aguirre-Proano shared that the focus of his correspondence with Blackman was on the development of the “kids” on his team. He laughed as he explained that he considers anyone younger than him to be a youngster.

“People that leave here—and look, I’m not saying that every individual here will be a success,” he said. “Hopefully they will. However, I dare to say that the recidivism rate is much lower in the wildlife prison crews than the general population.”

The Department of Forestry in the state of Arizona does not keep track of the rate of recidivism among formerly jailed firemen. But in a July 2017 opinion article in the Arizona Daily Star, Governor Ducey wrote, “to me, the program is a way of letting these individuals pay back their communities and, by giving them a chance to be productive members of society, increasing the likelihood that they won’t return to prison after being released. Often, it means a job is waiting when they walk out the doors.”

Additionally, the program has the potential to open doors to work after release from prison. In 2017, the state of Arizona’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management established a firefighting crew in Phoenix that was the first of its kind. The crew was made up of people who were on post-release and had either served on a firefighting crew while they were incarcerated or had prior experience in the field of firefighting.

In October, Representative Blackman expressed his support for the early-release credit idea that was being considered by the Florence Earned Release Credits Committee.

In an interview with The Appeal, Blackman stated, “I think they have proven that they are folks that we can trust and that deserve a second chance.” Blackman was referring to the individuals in question. “In the event that no more earned-release legislation is able to be passed, I would ask for us to pay special attention to those individuals who are fighting fires. Every time they are allowed to leave the prison, these individuals put their own lives in danger in order to protect the state of Arizona’s forests.

Indeed, firefighting is an inherently risky work; in 1990, five inmates were murdered while fighting a fire in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest; and it is anticipated that the effects of climate change will make firefighting an even more dangerous occupation in the years to come. According to the findings of a study that was conducted by Climate Central and released in 2016, Arizona might see an increase in the number of high-risk fire days equivalent to more than one month by the year 2050.

“All I can speak to is my experience,” Aguirre-Proano said. “Now I’m not an expert on climate change, but you can’t help but see and feel, in our case, that the months are getting hotter. We’re getting called later in the season, and it is a more aggravating environment than in previous years. And if you look at fires in Southern California, they’re increasing. So something’s happening.”

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Many people believe that this is yet another reason why their work should be acknowledged in the form of additional earned-release credits. “I think that [the inmate firefighter program] shows just how perversely the state has depended on prison labor,” said Kendrick of the Prison Law Office. “I think it shows just how perversely the state has depended on prison labor.” “They’re not getting any protection on the job like workers compensation if they’re injured, and again, they’re getting paid so little that it can be exploitative. It’s not a black or white situation—it does teach people skills, but at the same time, there’s tension in it.”

The recommendations that were deemed most important by the Earned Release Credits Committee were made public on December 2nd. Wildland firefighters were not mentioned, nor was there a specific provision for them to earn additional release credits in any of the proposals. However, Blackman stated that he intends to present the Wildland Firemen Release bill this month. If passed, the law would grant convicted firefighters a unique earned-release credit ratio that would expedite their release from prison. He declined to comment on the number of vacation days that would be awarded to firefighters based on their number of years of service under the proposal.

“Even if we can’t get a bill for all earned-release credit folks, I think that firefighters in our prison system are the best possible case scenario for a pilot program,” Blackman said. “I think that firefighters in our prison system are the best possible case scenario for a pilot program.” “To show the rest of the state and the country that if we really invest in these people who are incarcerated, then at the end of the journey we’ll have a product that’s successful,”

As a result of the inadequate number of staff members at Florence State Prison, Governor Doug Ducey declared on January 15 that he will close the facility during his State of the State speech. People who are now detained there “will be relocated to a combination of third-party operators and county corrections facilities,” according to a statement released later by Ducey’s administration.

It is yet unknown how this would affect the two firefighting units operating within Florence, one of which belongs to Aquirre-Proano.

In a phone discussion with The Appeal, Aquirre-Proano stated, “We hope they keep the Florence crew together, but at this time it is too early to tell what is going to happen,” despite the fact that it is too early to predict what will happen. “It makes sense, now more than ever, to introduce and pass legislation that will affect all firefighters, for the reasons that we have discussed previously,” said the firefighter. “It makes sense to introduce and pass legislation that will affect all firefighters.”

At the Arizona State Capitol, campaigners will get together today for ReFraming Justice Day 2020 in order to lobby for extensive changes to be made to the state’s extremely severe criminal justice system. Matthew Charles, a man from Tennessee who was freed from prison as a result of the First Step Act, and Ashley Ehmke, the wife of a firefighter at the Florence jail, are two of the people scheduled to speak at the event.

Caroline Isaacs, program director at the American Friends Service Committee’s Arizona office, which is organizing the rally, stated that “this legislature is probably going to have the largest slate of criminal justice reform bills to date—and they’re largely bipartisan.” The rally is being organized by the American Friends Service Committee. ‘There are remedies that are needed in all of those areas, including earned-release credits and sentencing reform laws, which would help send fewer people to jail and help them get out of prison earlier.’ “All of those areas”