JLUSA leader Brandon Smith on The Frontline at Atmos
August 15, 2022
“I was 22 years old the first time I landed behind bars. That was back in 2006. They picked me up on charges of drug possession with intent to sell—something that’s legal now in my state of California. Things changed after I was arrested in 2012—the ninth time in under six years. At the time, I felt like everything was lost. I didn’t know a way out of the life I had been living. When I got to Wasco State Prison, where I was meant to spend my 32-month sentence, I asked God to help me figure out how to build a better life.
“I guess he was listening. A prison counselor came to my cell 30 days after I arrived and asked if I wanted to go to fire camp, where incarcerated folks go to train and fight wildfires across California. I initially said no because fire scared the heck out of me. (C’mon, I grew up watching films like the 1991 action thriller Backdraft and the animated kid’s movie FernGully: The Last Rainforest.) I joined only after everyone else told me fire camp was the highest-paying job available. How could I say no to that?
“The program is far from perfect—I was paid only $1.50 a day—but it offered me a chance to live a life different from what I led in my cell. The fire camp was closer to my family, so I got to see them every other week. I no longer lived under the watch of gun towers. I grew to love the career, but I struggled to continue the work once I was released in 2014. That’s why I founded the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP) a year later. Just as the free world wasn’t keen to invite me to the fire line, it wasn’t hiring my brothers and sisters coming out of prison, either. But we’ve got the experience and know-how—we’ve only ever needed an opportunity.”
Brandon Smith is a 2020 Leading with Conviction graduate. Read his story on The Frontline at Atmos.