- Stef W. Kight
- Nov 8
How inmates who fight wildfires are later denied firefighting jobs
Firefighters battle flames north of L.A. in this 2008 photograph. Photo: Mike Meadows / AP
Many prisons offer educational and job training programs for inmates hoping to work in fields like cosmetology, firefighting or even law after serving their time. But due to complicated occupational licensing laws, which often automatically deny applicants with criminal histories, men and women who take advantage of these training programs are released from prison only to discover it is next to impossible to be hired for their acquired skills.
Why it matters: There are 4,000 inmate firefighters who have been battling the devastating wildfires in California for $1 an hour. However, they are likely never to land a firefighting job when they are released. Prisoner rights advocate and founder of Root and Rebound Katherine Katcher has written extensively about the challenge facing California's inmate firefighters. She told Axios "the 70% recidivism rate is not going to change" if nothing is done about these licensing laws. "What's the point of letting people out ... [if] there's still an invisible prison around them?"
It's not always an intentional discrimination against people with criminal histories, but "passivity and unintentionality," Katcher says. To become a firefighter, most departments require an EMT license, but EMT certifying boards have a pattern of denying applicants with a criminal history. Defenders of licensing regimes say they help screen out incompetent or poorly skilled potential employees and ensure minimum skill standards.
The big picture:
- About 21% of California's 19 million workers hold licenses, according to the Little Hoover Commission.
- "What we've seen is that not just people in reentry are impacted," Katcher says. "Prison programs across the county are training people for jobs, very well meaning, and then occupational licensing bars them from actually getting those jobs."
- It's not just firefighters in California either, in some states, inmates can be trained as cosmetologists, but are unable to receive a cosmetology certification after their release. Ex-convicts often face barriers to construction, tree trimming and truck driving jobs. Women also face difficulty being hired for helping professions like home care aid.
- These licensing laws disproportionally affect the lower-level jobs that inmates, who tend to have less formal education, are more likely to qualify for, Katcher says.
- People of color with criminal histories are impacted most by licensing laws, according to studies by the National Employment Law Project.
- Groups all sides of the political spectrum, from ACLU to the Heritage Foundation, have been advocating to change how occupational licensing laws work, according to Lee McGrath, the managing attorney at the conservative Institute for Justice.
Go deeper with Katcher's USA Today op-ed.