Incarcerated firefighter shares experiences as a first responder at San Quentin State Prison
November 6, 2020
He took a trip to the 99 cent store in Benicia, California, where he bought items such as: a toothbrush; one pack of razors; one bottle of men’s shampoo; one bottle of of 3-in-1 body wash; a loofah, two packs of hangers; and a bandana for “Uncle Mike” Gonzalez, 59, who was being released on Sept. 15 after serving 24 years of a 30-year sentence.
“I don’t want him to ever go back there”, Michele expresses as she explains that she looks forward to being able to spend time with her father after 24 years, and the steps he needs to take in order to stay out manage to not go back, “I want him to get into groove of having a job and different routine than what he’s used to.”
On Sept. 11, three days prior to Lockheart’s release, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 21-47, which allows previously incarcerated people to apply to get their records expunged in order to work as first responders following their release.
For Lockheart and Gonzalez, who met while working at the firehouse in San Quentin, the bill gave them the ability to apply to get their records expunged, as they were trained to be first responders while they were in San Quentin. Lockheart is currently in the process of getting his record expunged, in order to work as a first responder.
“[It] will probably not take effect until January 1, I would imagine. But then, at that time, people who are working the concentration camps and firefighters who have the availability to have their records expunged”, James King, a state campaigner for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, explains what the processes of AB 2147 is predicted to look like.
As a lead engineer on a type one fire engine — one that is designated for cities and metropolitan areas — Lockheart said he could take over the ambulance if something were to happen with the outside station. Gonzalez was a dispatcher for the San Quentin Firehouse.
“It gives hope,” Lockheart said. “It gives incentive for incarcerated people to want to get into this career field more than what it was before because we want to do this work. But it doesn’t fix everything.”
Rasheed and Uncle Mike shared that at San Quentin the incarcerated population is encouraged to join a program or have a job during the time they serve. The pay for the type of job is dependent on who the job is offered by. Ranging from building furniture or making test tubes and getting paid minimum wage, these jobs are largely offered by outside businesses,but that is not the case for every job.
The firefighting program is offered through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which does not allow as much financial benefits for the incarcerated person as other jobs inside do, according to King.
Lockheart attributes the high recidivism numbers to low wages they earn while incarcerated. They are often released into environments that first got them incarcerated and money saved up from low wages that could not help them sustain a life outside of prison.
A study on recidivism rates by the Bureau of Justice Statistics focused on 401,288 incarcerated people in 2005 from 30 different institutions throughout nine years. They noticed that during the 9-year period they had 1,994,000 arrests, which is an average of 5 arrests per incarcerated person.
“For the taxpayers, it’s a great program. I mean, these men are giving their lives once they are properly trained to fight the fires and help them save their property,’ Gonzalez said. “They’re doing whatever they can so they don’t lose their home, lose their property, lose their livestock or their lives, period.”
“We were going to everything from false alarm calls, just like on the streets to CPR calls, which unfortunately, was also a big part of what we did and then we transport a lot of bodies”, Lockheart explained.
Despite working in such a demanding job filled with trauma responding to calls that could’ve been colleagues he sees everyday, Lockeart stated there never once was a sense of regret about being a first responder, adding that the program helped to pass the time.
“I felt like that was my calling. That was my purpose. And if I was able bodied, and couldn’t anybody else do it, at least I knew I could” Rasheed explains why he continued being a first responder, “it’s something that’s self fulfilling, and it’s unlike anything you could ever connect with.”
The CDCR reported in June 3,462 incarcerated individuals at San Quentin. The number of first responders typically is 9-12 according to Lockheart, but this number has slightly changed since the pandemic.
This means, those who were in the program like Uncle Mike and have now been released during the time of COVID-19, their position has not been filled, leaving less first responders to be able to respond to the San Quentin population.
Gonzalez also noticed a complete change in the calls the first responders received. They now receive calls of men feeling sick, which has affected the ability of the incarcerated people who are trained to fight fires to do so this fire season.
The ability to interact with people who are not incarcerated had a huge impact on the mentality of those who were incarcerated. There was no divide when they were working on the field, which Lockheart explained as a night-and-day change for some of the men, because he felt as they were being treated as equals rather than subordinates.
San Quentin currently has the leading death count of 28 incarcerated people due to COVID-19, as stated by the CDCR.
“We now have an aging dying population that’s just sitting there. And essentially just waiting, right, like a lot of the people that are dying, they’re dying, because of suicides, drug overdoses, which also sometimes are used as a way of suicide, and just an aging population” Lockheart explains he feels as though mass incarceration the largest impact on the first responder crew.
In 2013 the Public Safety Realignment effort made to reduce overcrowding, the plan was to have people who were incarcerated in level three or four prisons to have the ability to move down to level one or two prisons. The people who were then in the lower level prisons would get released at a faster rate.
To apply to be a firefighter, individuals must have had a maximum of five years left in their sentence, but this realignment opened it up to 10 years, allowing Lockheart to apply to be a firefighter. However, he was denied when officials noticed that in the realignment plan, they would be losing the firefighting crew at a faster rate. Among those who opposed this plan was now-former San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.
In July 2020, the CDCR announced a new plan to reduce population in response to the COVID-19. In the plan, they estimate 4,800 people as being eligible for release at the end of July. They are also currently looking into releasing those who have a year left in their sentence, prioritizing those who are 30 years and older and giving “positive program credits” to the estimated 108,000 who are eligible. San Quentin is one of the eight of the institutions that benefits from this proposed plan.
While Uncle Mike currently has no plans to pursue a career as a first responder due to his age, he hopes to be able to regain the ability to vote and serve society in that way. He mentioned Proposition 17, would allow people who are on parole to restore their voting rights.
“And absolutely, I’ll be trying to apply to have my record expunged. But it’s not the fix-all because there’s still a long road ahead of me or anybody else who wants to do this line of work,” Lockheart said.