Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox | Contributor

While COVID-19 rattles the country, and the criminal justice system continues to be firmly in the nation’s spotlight, activists and communities in this state are having success pushing forward a reform agenda. 

Over the past several years, California has been in the vanguard of adopting several criminal justice reforms and while the long term effectiveness and outcomes of these policies are yet to be determined, there are reasons to expect some have the potential to  be immediately life  changing.

On September 11,2020, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2147.

(Source: Twitter)

This bill is set to allow prison firefighters (who risk losing their lives battling flames for California residents) the ability to apply for and get those jobs once they have been released from prison, by allowing them to expunge the felonies from their records which once shackled them permanently to legal non-personhood.

(Source: California State Assembly)

This step is an incredibly important one as California has often led the nation legislatively–not always toward the expansion of justice or personal freedom (think of the disastrous effects of the three strike laws).

When Newsom signed the legislation Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-San Bernardino) who sponsored it said, “Signing AB 2147 into law is about giving second chances. To correct is to right a wrong; to rehabilitate to restore. Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career, is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those who show the determination and commitment to turn their lives around.”  

Even now, as consensus builds around the need to re-examine systems of mass incarceration and control, it must be acknowledged that parties to the discussions around reform often come to the table with differing agendas. 

Post Great Recession, pre-COVID, cash-strapped municipalities saw the light of prison reform starting up from the bottom of an economic crisis which had them rethinking  fiscal priorities. At the same time, those same financial considerations had deficit hawks from both parties suddenly concerned with the  exorbitant costs of  a system of incarceration where the only guarantees are those  made contractually to supply an endless stream of bodies to vendors in order to fuel profits. The movement towards reform in these quarters did not begin with kindness deep in the hearts of legislators. No matter, consensus must be built with those willing to do the work, it is for those most invested, to keep their eyes on the “why’s”.

Eyes on the Why’s

Early this year, as unprecedented fires burned through the state, reports of the extreme shortages of firefighters were a featured topic of discussion in the media for months. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle dated Aug. 22, 2020 discussed the way emergency firefighting resources are usually allocated:

When major fires overwhelm local resources, first responders typically turn to a statewide mutual aid system designed to rally support from nearby counties. The program has been praised as a national model. But in recent years, as climate change has intensified the power and frequency of California’s wildfires, that support system has been less effective. And the conditions that created the problem are only getting worse.

When speaking to the shortages of firefighters to battle the wildfires which recently, heartbreakingly, burned through Northern California the San Francisco Chronicle stated:

As of Friday morning, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said, 375 engines had been requested from outside California. So far, 45 of them have arrived. Many other Western states are also facing an active fire season.

By allowing prisoner firefighters to apply for the job they once were paid as little as $2 a day to do, the state has laid the groundwork for a possible win/win situation.

Inmates prepare for duty fighting fires across California

(Source: Democracy Now – Youtube)

The Black community has long been devastated by the disappearance of generations of men (mostly) from the lives and communities of Black families. This has added to the subsequent impoverishment and dislocation of Black women and children. By providing Black men the opportunity to learn skills which will provide life-changing work once they leave the system, the state is providing them with the ability to care for families and communities who need them desperately and the ability to stop the cycle of release and inevitable rearrest. And, will begin to go a long way toward dismantling the unjust system of mass incarceration.

According to the author Michelle Alexander in her seminal work “The New Jim Crow: Colorblindness in the Age of Mass Incarceration:”

What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of society than with the language, we use to justify it.  In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to use race explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt.  So, we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use the criminal justice system to label people of color criminals and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Once you’re labelled a felon the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination,  denial of the right to vote,  denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal.

AB2147 points us in the right direction and gives us a glimpse of what the future of reparative and social justice might look like.

In August, the New York Times reported California has the capacity to train and house nearly 3,400 inmate firefighters. Today, only about 1,306 inmates are deployed.

Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox is a student and history buff— a grandmother, a parent, a sister, an aunt and lover of people, animals, plants, and the planet.