From Felon to Fighter: The Redemption of Jose Santana
Santa Barbara County Resident Is Among First to Have Criminal Record Expunged
Under New State Law
By Tyler Hayden | October 14, 2021
Every day he was in prison, Jose Santana would write letters to his sons that he never sent. Their mother didn’t allow any communication between them for the three years he was inside, especially not after his last crime.
But every evening before lights out, Santana would sit down on a steel stool at a steel desk and tell Seth and Silas about his day and how much he missed them. He left out the regular gang fights on his tier and the regrets that nagged every slow-moving hour of his sentence and instead talked about the things they would do as a family when he got out, like get a dog and go on hikes.
Santana continued his writing ritual even when, as an inmate firefighter, he worked on the front lines of some of California’s biggest recent disasters. At one point in 2020, he was out in the field for 60 days straight battling the Creek, River, Silverado, and LNU Lighting Complex fires. Racked by bone-deep exhaustion, he’d use the glow of his headlamp to scratch out a few sentences. “I just didn’t want them to think I ever forgot about them,” he said.
Earlier this year, out on parole, Santana reunited with his boys, now aged 13 and 10. It’s been a slow integration back into their lives, monitored closely by their mom. The four have mostly been meeting at Santana’s parents’ home in Santa Maria and steadily spending more and more time with each other. Someday soon, Santana hopes, they’ll all move back in together. “They need me now,” he said. “I can’t mess up.”
Santana’s story, however, stretches far beyond his personal atonement. He made history by becoming the first — and still only — Santa Barbara County resident and former inmate firefighter to have his criminal record expunged under a new state law so he could become a professional firefighter. He’s now a fully credentialed Cal Fire employee based out of Tulare County with his sights set on one day joining the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
The process was anything but easy. The District Attorney’s Office fought hard against Santana’s petition, and he was used as an unwitting political pawn in dramatic budget hearings this summer, with his case invoking difficult questions about our criminal justice system — who deserves a chance at redemption, and who does not? Where is the line, and how is it drawn? Toward what, as a county, do we want to put our money and resources? The District Attorney, jail, and punishment? Or the Public Defender, social programs, and rehabilitation?
Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who represents Santa Maria, remains troubled by Santana’s case. “In general, I believe we are too quick to dismiss the violent actions of criminals in order to reduce our jail population,” he said in an email exchange with the Independent this week, referencing what he described as a “rubber-stamped expungement express lane for violent felons.”
“I’m all for diverting nonviolent offenders,” Lavagnino said, “but we are experiencing an epidemic of violence in this country, much of it directed against women. When we minimize and rationalize violence, we are sending the wrong message.”
Santana’s public defender, Adrian Galvan, says Santana is no longer the person he was when he committed his terrible crime and that his future shouldn’t be forever defined by his past mistakes. He also noted that Santana’s expungement request was argued openly and fairly in front of a Santa Barbara Superior Court judge, who deliberated at length before rendering his decision. There was no “express lane,” he said.
“We see this case as a shining example of true rehabilitation — going full circle from really bad incident to being punished to exiting the hell of the system to becoming a hero,” Galvan said. “Most people only see value in the punishment side of the system. Most people don’t see value in the other side, the rehabilitation side.”
January 15, 2017, was, as Santana described it, “the worst day of my life.” He’d recently relapsed into a methamphetamine addiction — something he’d struggled with most of his adulthood — and showed up drunk and high to his ex-girlfriend’s house, where he was renting a room. They got into an argument, and she told Santana to leave. He refused and, after drinking more, blacked out.
According to police, at around 12:45 a.m. as the argument escalated, Santana suddenly grabbed a whiskey bottle and began striking his ex-girlfriend over the head with it. She tried protecting herself with her hands and arms before collapsing to the floor. Santana then pulled a knife from the kitchen drawer and stood over her. He threatened to kill her. She managed to escape and ran to a neighbor’s house. Santana chased her outside but fled to his car when the neighbor’s motion light was activated. He was soon pulled over and arrested by Sheriff’s deputies.
The assault opened a gash in the victim’s scalp that required three staples to close, and she also sustained severe bruising to her hands and fingers. Efforts by the Independent to contact her for this story were unsuccessful. Though it was Santana’s first violent crime, prosecutors cited his previous arrests for drug offenses and pushed for a significant prison term. He ultimately took a plea deal that put him away for three years, spending 10 months in our County Jail as his case was heard before being transferred to Wasco State Prison, where the Fresno Bulldogs and Southside gang frequently beat and stab one another.
Santana, 40, has difficulty talking about that night. Remorse doesn’t even come close to describing how he feels about what he did, he said, and he knows it will take a lifetime to earn back the trust he lost from his family, friends, and community. When his cell bars first clanged shut, “I thought that was it — my life was over,” he said. “I’m going to be too old to do anything when I get out, and I’ll have a prison term under my belt. What was the point of even trying? What was the point of being good in there?”
But then Santana discovered fire camp, or what are technically called conservation camps, facilities up and down the state created during World War II when able-bodied men were in short supply. There are now 43 sites operated by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Cal Fire that train and outfit approximately 3,000 inmates to fight wildland blazes and serve as important backup to frontline hotshot and engine crews.
The camps are an attractive option for inmates who qualify — offenders guilty of certain crimes, such as murder, rape, and arson, are not eligible — as the food, amenities, and freedoms are far better there than in prison. They also get two days off their custody term for every one they serve at a camp. Participants say the two dollars per day they earn (plus another dollar an hour while fighting active fires) is a fortune compared to what other prison jobs pay, though critics often compare the program to modern-day indentured servitude, given how critical the inmates’ roles have become in a state that always seems to be on fire.
Santana took pride in his work as a hand-crew puller and sawyer out of the Sierra Conservation Center he transferred to, creating fuel breaks ahead of advancing fires and clearing out brush for controlled burns. After squandering a number of opportunities throughout his life with drugs — first at the private schools his parents sent him to, then with the good facilities jobs at Vandenberg Air Force Base and UC Santa Barbara — he felt like he’d finally found a purpose. “I always felt like I was missing something in life, and that’s why I was super unhappy,” he said. “I couldn’t figure it out until I started doing firefighting.”
The clincher was when he and his crew were up fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire and the residents of Oroville where they had their command post would wave and cheer when their transport van drove by. They offered Santana and his team food, and the preschool next door made signs. “Even though they knew we were inmates,” Santana said of their distinctive orange gear, “people treated us with respect, and they were happy to have us.” It injected him with a feeling of pride and self-confidence he’d never felt before. “We got a lot of love,” he said.
From that point on, Santana devoted himself fully to firefighting, not just the grunt work, but the entire profession. He learned what he could on the lines, took classes back at camp, and stayed on the straight and narrow. “I saw this quote one time and it really stuck with me,” he said. “‘Things work out for the best for those who make the best of how things work out.’” Santana couldn’t know at the time how apropos that credo would become to his life and his career as, upon being paroled, he was given an opportunity few in his shoes ever had.
Last year, on Santana’s birthday, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that allows inmates who successfully served in prison fire camps to petition a judge to clear their record and waive their parole, thus removing a major obstacle to them finding employment in California firehouses.
Sitting at an ash-covered picnic table and surrounded by blackened trees — the aftermath of the North Complex Fire that scorched 318,935 acres, destroyed 2,455 buildings and homes, and killed 16 people — Newsom said Assembly Bill 2147 “rights a historic wrong and recognizes the sacrifice of thousands of incarcerated people who have helped battle wildfires in our state.”
Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, the San Bernardino Democrat who authored the bill, told reporters that inmate crews are “hailed as heroes” as they stand shoulder to shoulder with professional firefighters yet have nearly all doors of opportunity closed to them once they’re released. “The inequity in that did not seem right,” Reyes said in an interview. “What they’re volunteering to do is very dangerous. What better proof of rehabilitation is there than being willing to put their lives on the line for people they’ve never met?”
By this time, Santana had applied and been accepted to the Ventura Training Center, a first-of-its-kind program just outside Camarillo specifically designed to equip parolees with the training and certification necessary to apply for careers at Cal Fire and other firefighting agencies. Opened in 2018 with $26.6 million from the state’s general fund, the center houses up to 80 participants for its 18-month program. Nearly every man that has graduated thus far — because, at the moment, the program is only for men — has secured a job.
In addition to the field and classroom work, participants receive a menu of wrap-around services, including recovery counseling, anger management, and life-skills education. They’re also expected to volunteer, helping at homeless shelters, doing beach cleanups, or talking to youths. “It’s about more than just becoming a firefighter,” said John Cesario, Santana’s life coach and a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). “It’s about an individual becoming the best version of himself — these guys become better husbands, better fathers, better citizens in their community.”
Cesario said Santana excelled at the Center, even though he showed up the first day exhausted. It turned out Santana had been up late the night before playing games with his sons, soaking up every minute with them that he could. Santana’s class — Class #5 — stood out for its initiative and work ethic, remembered Cesario, thanks in large part to Santana’s good example. “He was a team player and worked hard,” he said.
When Santana petitioned the Santa Barbara court to have his record expunged, Cesario wrote a letter to the judge on his behalf. So did Bernardo Sotelo, a Cal Fire captain at the Center who trained Santana. Sotelo echoed Cesario’s assessment. “The rest of the guys benefited from him,” Sotelo said. “He always wanted to learn a little bit more.”
Sotelo said he wrote the support letter “gladly” and had no hesitation in putting his name on it. “Because I knew Jose was not going to do me wrong,” he said. Sotelo makes no judgments of the men who come through the Center, he said, though he’s well aware every one of them has a troubled background. “I don’t care where they came from,” he said. “That’s not important to me. What’s important is they give 110 percent day in and day out.”
A Los Angeles probation commissioner named Don Meredith wrote a letter for Santana as well. He disclosed their personal connection — Santana is his son’s brother-in-law — but staked his professional reputation on Santana’s ongoing success. “I have seen him mature and become a role model for his children,” he wrote.
“Throughout my 36-year law enforcement career and role as Probation Commissioner,” Meredith continued, “I have on occasion written letters in support of formerly incarcerated individuals for certificate of rehabilitation, job recommendation, or college enrollment. I do not make recommendations lightly, and only do so for those who I believe have moved forward and become productive members of society.”
Despite these sparkling accolades, the District Attorney’s Office sought to have Santana’s petition thrown out on the grounds that his crime was too heinous. Prosecutors argued that even though the domestic assault didn’t technically disqualify Santana from the new provisions provided by AB 2147 — offenders with top-level felonies, such as murder, kidnapping, and rape, are automatically ineligible — an exception ought to be made for him.
“While his charge alone is not specifically precluded from the statute,” the office stated in its opposition, “the underlying facts of the conviction are extremely serious and violent and must be given serious consideration in terms of victim’s safety and public safety.”
Judge James Voysey wholeheartedly disagreed and granted Santana’s petition, explaining AB 2147 was written for people like him and that in all his years on the bench, he had rarely seen such a remarkable turnaround. Voysey said he was happy to play some part in it, and he thanked Santana for his service. Santana and his attorney, Galvan, were ecstatic. “We couldn’t believe it,” Santana said.
A few months later, during the county budget hearings in which Santana’s name was invoked, Galvan’s boss, Lea Villegas, praised the outcome of the case but lamented the process. “Mr. Santana would not have stood a chance at obtaining the relief that he sought, the relief that he earned, against such an uncompromising adversary without the skill and diligence of his public defender,” she told the supervisors, highlighting the disparities in funding to her office and the District Attorney’s.
Her department has only one Adrian Galvan, Villegas said, but how many more Jose Santanas are out there? She referenced a single expungement clinic put on by the Public Defender with a social justice grant that resulted in 50 record clearances — 50 people’s futures unshackled by the collateral consequences of their pasts, as she put it.
In a recent interview, Villegas wondered how Santa Barbara’s justice system treats those whose crimes fall somewhere between petty and unforgivable. “There is so much conversation these days about low-level offenders,” she said. “But what about the people who are convicted of a little more than a low-level offense? The guys who steal a car are redeemable, but the guys who steal a car and are gang members aren’t redeemable? They’re just throwaways?”
Rob Hazard, Santa Barbara County’s Fire Marshal, has worked alongside inmate crews his entire career, starting when he was a Los Padres hotshot in the ’90s. Staff almost always rely on prisoner teams to “hold the line, do the mop-up,” and perform other essential duties during big incidents, he explained. And he sees former parolees who’ve proved their mettle as a reliable labor pool, especially now as fires grow ever bigger and more frequent.
“Until we build terminator robots to fight fires, we’ll always have a huge need for strong-bodied people to do this work,” Hazard said. That’s true for the “off-season” as well, when forest management might help stop the next conflagration. “These folks could be a big help to those programs,” he said, “running saws and chippers. I see a lot of benefit to this.”
But Santana isn’t content staying in the back of the pack. He’d like to one day promote to working on an engine and being at the front of the action. He’s on his way to obtaining an associate’s degree in Fire Technology through online courses at Allan Hancock College, and he has maintained a 3.5 GPA, even in the midst of constant deployments. One of the interviews for this story was cut short when the horns at his Tulare station house blared and his Cal Fire crew was thrown at backcountry lighting strikes.
Santana is also now taking the EMT courses that were previously unavailable to him until his record was expunged. Sarah, his partner and the mother of his kids, is training to become an emergency medic as well. “She helps me out a lot,” he said. “In a lot of ways. We have the same goals. I just wish I hadn’t wasted so much time.”
The next few months will be the real test for Santana, not because he’ll be busy but because he won’t be. He’s getting downtime from Tulare back home in Santa Maria, where the temptation for drugs and his old ways will be strong. The fact he has a healthy bank account is a double-edged sword, he acknowledged. He’s able to buy the toys for his sons that he could never afford and take his mom out to fancy dinners, but it could lead to bad things as well.
So Santana has a plan. He’s working out, reading a lot (his mother was a librarian when he was growing up and made sure he always had a book with him), and just embarked on a thick fantasy series. The family adopted a dog — a handsome, blue-eyed husky from the Humane Society that Sarah loves “because he never talks back,” Santana said. And they’re going on lots of hikes. The Pismo Beach Preserve is a favorite.
Santana doesn’t harbor any resentment toward the people who doubted him and believed he was a lost cause. He was given a second chance, he said, so he’ll give them one. The ironic part, he said, is that he never would have found firefighting if he didn’t get locked up.
“You don’t have to make jail or prison the worst thing that happened to you,” he said. “You can actually turn it into something good. I really think people should know that.”