Arizona’s Prisoner Firefighters May Be Eligible for Earlier Release | Phoenix New Times

Arizona’s Incarcerated Firefighters May Earn Extra Time Off Sentences

HB 2849 would offer reduced sentencing for inmates who work as firefighters for the state.
Arizona Representative Walter Blackman
Arizona Representative Walter Blackman Gage Skidmore
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Representative Walter Blackman has proposed another sentencing reform bill – this time, one that would specifically apply to prisoners fighting Arizona’s wildfires.

The bill would allow firefighters to earn four days off their sentence for every six days served, in addition to a “bonus” day off for every two days spent out in the field fighting fires or doing fire prevention work.

The representative said he wants to frame the reform bill as a “pilot” for future early-release programs – and act as insurance should other proposed sentencing reform bills languish this legislative session.

“Firefighters don’t act up; they don’t have any problems,” Blackman said. “I figured if any earned release credit could get across the finish line, it would be that one. Because that is the model type of inmate that we should be looking for.”

Currently, Arizona inmates are required to spend 85 percent of their sentences behind bars. The firefighter legislation is one of two bills the representative has proposed this session to amend this rule — the other, HB 2808, applies to the broader prison population convicted of nonviolent offenses. It receives a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee today.

“My strategy was to put both of them up,” said Blackman. “The purpose for this bill is if the other one does not go through.”

HB 2849, which Blackman introduced on February 13, would amend an existing bill passed last year that offers reduced sentencing to people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and add provisions specifically for inmates who work as firefighters for the state.

Since 1984, through a partnership between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Forestry and Fire Management, Arizona has deployed prisoners to fight fires throughout the state. These inmates, who have all been convicted of “low-level” offenses, undergo the same training and certification process as professional firefighters, and work in tandem with state and local crews while wearing the standard yellow firefighting uniform.
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Members of the Florence Earned Release Credits Committee, left to right: Francisco X. Aguirre-Proano, Max Block, Adam Tronnier, and Reed Ehmke.
Hannah Critchfield

The voluntary program has been hailed as widely successful, with local community leaders to Governor Doug Ducey alike praising the contributions of the incarcerated crews. However, some criminal justice reform advocates have criticized the low pay — just $1.50 for each hour spent out in the field — the prisoners receive while doing dangerous work for the state.

In July 2019, a handful of firefighters from crews housed inside Florence state prison began advocating for a bill that would recognize their labor through reduced sentencing. Along with loved ones outside the facility, they began writing letters to Blackman, specifically asking for the one-day-for-every-two-days-in-the-field ratio now included in the Republican lawmaker’s proposed bill.

“I put my hand in the fire — pun intended — for this legislation, because I would say that the crews throughout Arizona are very similar,” Francisco Aguirre-Proano, an incarcerated firefighter inside Florence who first started the push for a firefighter-specific bill, previously told New Times. “It would be a commonsensical, everybody-wins triumph.”

Both of Blackman’s proposed bills have been criticized for their lack of retroactivity — HB 2849 would count previous training time toward time of a sentence, but not previous time spent fighting fires out in the field.

“Because there’s no need — it’s going to affect those guys pretty quickly," Blackman said. "They’ve already done the majority of those classes.”

But Ashley Ehmke, wife of an incarcerated firefighter inside Florence prison, said she’s worried the bill won’t make as much of a dent as the legislator intends.

“There really aren’t a ton of programs offered [related to firefighting] — so those guys have taken everything that’s been made available to them,” Ehmke said. “It really doesn’t do them much service or give them much credit. They’re jumping at every opportunity that they’re given; it’s just not much.”

Ehmke noted that firefighters spend many days out in the field — her husband Reed spent over 20 days out of the prison for his job last fire season — and are not able to participate in in-person or tablet-based “educational programs” considered rehabilitative under the bill while they’re outside the facility.

“Sometimes, they’re flat-out not around when these things are offered,” Ehmke said. “For example, Reed and a couple others applied for a Pell Grant for continued education, and were granted it — but then they were made aware of the time commitment and coursework, and were like, how are we going to be able to do this and fight fires?”

Blackman later said he’s hoping to change this, allowing the “bonus” time reduction to apply to the time prisoners have already spent fighting fires, through an amendment in committee.

Inside Florence prison, Aguirre-Proano said he and his crew are glad for the proposed bill, but in limbo — they’re unsure if their legislation will be forgotten should Blackman’s broader earned-release bill moves forward today.

“At this hearing, will they also talk about 2849? I just don’t know,” said Aguirre-Proano. “I am all for it, the guys are really excited, but we’re just a little confused as to what it does and what happens next.”

Blackman said he will pursue passing the firefighter legislation regardless of the success of HB 2808.
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