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New law gives Colorado prisoners who fight wildfires path to become full-time firefighters

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Alex Burness

The Denver Post

The dozens of people in Colorado prisons who fight wildfires are largely locked out of the firefighting sector once they get out, but a new state law promises to change that.

The law, passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature and signed Thursday by Gov. Jared Polis, encourages the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control to give hiring preference to formerly incarcerated people with firefighting experience.

It also requires that the Department of Corrections educate prison firefighters about post-release employment in the field and establishes a peer mentorship program for those firefighters. These changes must be implemented by July 2022.

“Making it possible for these individuals to use their skills and training to find work once they are released helps increase public safety and reduce their chances of committing another crime and coming back into our custody,” Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams said. “When people have a job, a place to live, community connections and a larger purpose once they are released, they are much more likely to be contributing members of society. There is dignity in work and being productive again.”

Men who fought fires while incarcerated in Colorado are barred from working for urban fire departments because their felony convictions preclude them from getting EMT licenses. This new law won’t change that. And while they have been not formally banned from many wildland firefighting departments, stigma and lack of awareness of employment opportunities have kept them from getting jobs with rare exceptions.

One of the sponsors of the new law, Rep. Dylan Roberts, said in a recent speech on the Colorado House floor that the bill is a win for the prisoners and for the public.

“We better equip our state to fire forest fires that we all know are increasing at an alarming rate, and we offer formerly incarcerated individuals a path back into our communities with a solid employment opportunity,” the Avon Democrat said.

The inmate firefighting program has been suspended due to COVID-19, but pre-pandemic there were about 75 people participating among three different teams in Cañon City, Buena Vista and Rifle. They are all men, convicted of non-violent offenses and eligible for parole within three years.

Hundreds apply annually, in part because they receive one day off their sentences for each day they are in the field. The incarcerated firefighters also earn about $6 per day of labor — a relatively large figure compared to wages for other jobs in prison.

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