Criminals turned firefighters find new lives on the front lines

“The worst thing for me was feeling like I was letting my family down,” said the 40-year-old married father of four. “That was the hardest part for me. I’m a supplier.”

Reyna and her mentors are confident that he will soon be earning a good starting salary as a firefighter, with excellent benefits when he leaves the VTC.

Reyna pleaded guilty to intentional homicide in the 2005 shooting death of Daniel Rodriguez in the town of Alpine in San Diego. The prosecutor in the case, David Grapilon, told CNN that Reyna was not the trigger man, and he has no problem with Reyna, who has tough state prison rules on behavior to work in an inmate camp, becoming a firefighter.

“I’d rather see inmates doing something productive, like working in fire camps, than sitting inside all day watching TV,” the San Diego County Assistant District Attorney said. “And there are safeguards. The inmate firefighter program has strict rules on who gets accepted.”

Reyna is now part of a growing list of ex-convicts who will be or have been hired full-time by the fire departments as California endures massive savage infernos caused by the climate crisis. CalFire reports the eight largest fires in state history based on area, all since 2017.

“We are living in unprecedented times here in California,” said CalFire Battalion Chief Jeremy Brant. “We see the environment changing, increasing fire behavior and strong fire growth. Fire seasons are getting longer.”

Brant believes the center he runs with CalFire Division Chief Mike Salas can help meet the demand for more firefighters in California. The VTC, launched in 2018, was developed to accommodate ex-convicts who fought fires as members of a prison camp and prepare them for a career as firefighters.

CalFire estimates since 2018, 229 former prisoners registered in VTC. Of those, 136 got jobs, the majority with CalFire, and 56 are currently in the camp.

Before being released, inmates can learn firefighting skills at other camps run by the state’s Conservation Camp program. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports depending on skill level, while still incarcerated, firefighters earn between $2.90 and $5.12 a day while at camp. If assigned to an active emergency, CalFire pays prisoners an additional dollar per hour. The California code says pay for all prisoners, including those working in kitchens or laundry rooms, ranges from 8 cents to 37 cents an hour. The POW camp is considered a perk reserved for inmates who have shown good behavior.

California’s broader conservation camp program houses 1,216 men and 43 women, a demographic ratio proportional to the state’s total prison population, according to a state spokesperson.

To enter the VTC program after serving their sentence, participants must be carefully screened, have minimum prison status, and be recommended by a prison camp leader.

Former detainees spend five nights a week at the VTC, sleeping in barracks.

The training center offers a free 18-month program for felons to hone the firefighting skills they learned through the Conservation Camp program. Former inmates remain in Camarillo Barracks Monday through Friday.

It’s not just outdoor fire drills or classroom instruction on hellish behavior that officials say lead ex-convicts to success. The VTC offers in-depth mental health and addictions counseling in coordination with the California Department of Parole, the California Conservation Corps, and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Salas says the program is funded by CalFire and the California prison system.

“At VTC, we create a mentoring environment, where they can be safe,” Brant explained. “Too many guys get out of jail; re-offend because they’re hanging out with old friends, ex-gang members, whatever.”

A team of inmate firefighters work during the Palisades Fire in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood on Oct. 21, 2019, in Los Angeles.
California Governor Gavin Newsom lifted roadblocks for inmates to become firefighters with the signing of a bill on an ashen bench surrounded by burnt trees in September 2020.

“Inmates who have stood on the front lines, fighting historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter,” Newsom said.

The bill also gave the courts the power to expunge the criminal records of inmate firefighters, which had often made it more difficult to hire ex-inmates. Courts can strike out guilty camp prisoners or nolo contendere pleas, and a not guilty plea can be entered, or guilty verdicts can be overturned.
Inmates who fight California wildfires for a better chance of getting post-jail firefighting jobs

One of the first former camp inmates to have his records wiped is Jose Santana, who trained at the VTC, completed the program in the spring of 2021 and was hired soon after by the CalFire Tulare station unit. .

Santana served three years in prison for a crime for which he repeatedly apologizes to this day. The ex-con says while drunk on Jamison whiskey, high on meth and without sleep for five days, he smashed a bottle of booze into his then-girlfriend’s head.

“It’s my fault, I had no idea what I had done,” Santana said.

Santana served three years of a five-year sentence. He described massive fights at Wasco Jail and Sierra Correctional Center with inmates fighting with broomsticks, kicking each other in the head. The guards’ smoke canisters waved to break up the melee, casting a gray haze.

“A war zone,” Santana said. “I had to get out of there. I heard about Mountain Home, a fire camp for inmates. Maybe I could do that.”

Santana, according to his bosses, excelled at Mountain Home, which propelled him to the position of firefighter which he says makes his two sons proud. He overheard one of his boys bragging about a helmet while playing with others in Fortnight.

“‘Yeah, well my dad does a little something,'” Santana told her son. “‘He fights fires!’ “

As fires ravaged California in 2021, Santana racked up experience and overtime.

“Last year I estimated $86,000 to $89,000 total with all the overtime,” Santana said. “Big difference between that and just earning a few bucks a day as an inmate.”

On a rare day during fire season, Santana handed out CalFire stickers during a parade in Tulare, dressed in a navy blue outfit.

“It felt so good to wear that uniform, to give back to this great community,” Santana said. “I was smiling, thinking none of these people would ever know I was wearing prison orange.”

Santana told CNN he will soon be completing an emergency medical technician program at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria and taking on a bigger leadership role with CalFire.

There is no VTC-type facility or other training facility for ex-California firefighters, but Salas predicts state agencies will establish an all-female version of the VTC as soon as possible.

“Once we start figuring out how we can grow,” Salas said. “Where our female barracks are going to be.”

John Reyna can’t predict if he’ll end up full-time in barracks somewhere with CalFire. He applied for several CalFire jobs and his dream is in San Diego County.

Standing on the VTC field where he trained, sweated, walked and barked orders eventually as a business leader, he became thoughtful.

“I can’t stop remembering, I never forget what happened,” he said. “Never forget the people you hurt and their families. Start doing good to everyone around you and pay. Pay those families back. This is my way of giving back to this family I hurt, it is by doing good deeds.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented the rate of pay incarcerated firefighters earn while at camp.

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