California’s Prison Problems Won’t Extinguish Inmate Firefighters

Another challenging season is again showing the value of the state's all-prisoner fire crews

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Jae C. Hong / AP

Inmate firefighters walk along state Highway 120 as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., Aug. 25, 2013.

Two weeks after the Rim Fire started burning in northern California, thousands of firefighters are still working around the clock to slow its spread. As water-laden planes and helicopters attack the blaze from the air, crews on the ground labor to clear wood and dry brush, dig firelines and start small backfires to draw the main blaze away from populated areas. It’s dangerous, heroic work by almost any measure. But of the nearly 4,000 firefighters battling the Rim Fire, 600 are not exactly the grade school role models you might imagine. They are California state prisoners.

The nearly century-old Conservation Camps program has benefited both California and its inmates, officials say. In addition to providing the state with cheap labor and extra manpower during natural disasters, it has also reduced recidivism, according to the California Department of Corrections. Helping released inmates stay out of prison is more crucial than ever as California struggles through a legal quagmire brought on by severe overcrowding in its prison system, the same battle that, for a time, might have put the vaunted inmate firefighting program at risk.

In 2009, when California’s prison population reached 200% of the system’s capacity, a federal court ordered the state to reduce the number of prisoners in order to ensure their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. But this June, a panel of federal judges rejected the state’s plan to alleviate overcrowding by sending inmates to private and county jails, and ordered California to release roughly 9,600 inmates by the end of the year.

(PHOTOS: Rim Fire Tears Through Area Surrounding Yosemite National Park)

As the state sought to comply, it planned to reduce the number of inmates in the Conservation Camps by 40%. If nonviolent offenders were transferred to private or country jails or outright released, the pool of candidates for the camps would shrink. But according to officials from the California Department of Corrections, Conservation Camps aren’t in jeopardy after all. They’re just too valuable.

The program began in 1915, and in 1946, California opened its first permanent facility. Today, nearly 4,000 inmates live at 42 camps throughout the state. They are mostly non-violent offenders who volunteer to undergo two weeks of physical training before reporting to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, for another two weeks of firefighter training. If inmates are eligible, they can earn as many as two days off their sentence for each day of work.

During busy fire seasons, like this summer’s, the state relies heavily on the inmate firefighters. “Our inmate firefighters are vital to our fire protection system here in California,” says Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “We train them to the same level that we train our seasonal firefighters. They’re put through the same type of safety and operational firefighting training so they can go out there and perform side-by-side with volunteers and career firefighters.”

For large operations such as the Rim Fire, the inmates work in strike teams, which consist of two 14-man crews. The leader of the crew, known as the “Swamper,” makes $2.56 per day, while the lowest-ranking inmate makes $1.45 per day. When they’re deployed for emergencies like fires and floods, each inmate earns $1 per hour on top of their daily base pay. Inmate crews work 24-hour shifts before returning to the base camp to rest for 24 hours. During large fires and floods, the inmates might keep up that pace for weeks at a time.

(MORE: Deep Dive on the Yosemite Wildfires with the Interactive ‘Rim Fire Perspectives’ Map)

Even when there isn’t a natural disaster, inmate fire crews stay busy. “We take them out on projects every single day doing fire prevention and community service projects when they’re not on a fire line,” Berlant says. “The Department of Corrections estimates that each year the inmate crews provide three million man-hours during emergencies, seven million man-hours of community service and save the state more than $80 million.

In addition to aiding California’s bottom line, the program helps inmates successfully re-enter society. “A lot of these guys come in and have never held a job, never had any self worth,” says Correctional Lieutenant L.A. von Savoye, the public information officer at the Sierra Conservation Center, which oversees 19 conservation camps throughout central and southern California. “Within a very short time their mentality changes. They take pride in what they’re doing. They’re giving back to their communities. It gives them purpose.”

Neither the Department of Corrections nor Cal Fire know the exact number of inmate firefighters who become volunteer or professional firefighters after their release, but officials from both agencies said that it has happened. Likewise, the Department of Corrections does not have specific data on the recidivism rate for former Conservation Camp inmates, but they said that it is among the lowest of the programs that are available to California’s prisoners.

Many other western states, such as Colorado, Montana and Wyoming also have programs where prisoners train for and fight wildfires. Utah even has an inmate crew of Hotshots, elite firefighters with superior training and fitness who hike to remote areas of a fire zone to battle the blaze. In Utah, inmate firefighters can make as much as $5.55 per hour, more than their counterparts in other states.

The California Department of Corrections now says they’ll have enough qualified inmates to keep the camps staffed with at least 3,750 inmate firefighters.That’s good news for a state that has already seen nearly 5,000 fires this summer—11 of them major blazes. It also bodes well for those inmates who can face their future life on the outside armed with the skills and discipline learned during their service on the fire line.

WATCH: Stunning Timelapse Video of Yosemite Wildfire

6 comments
eyeguy
eyeguy

I was at one of the camps myself and I will tell you I was glad I found this article.  The fire camps are one of California's best kept secrets; citizens of the state have no idea how much property has been saved by prison inmate crews.  Training is intense; most people couldn't get through it, we had a guy die during mountain climbing training.  Yes the inmates get treated very well at the camps but they work HARD every day.  The state should thatk them. 

GaryBlanchette
GaryBlanchette

part 2. The sad thing about my son, is after the season was over those in charge found pictures taken of him while in the field that I had put on a Facebook with his name (I moderate it). Much like the one used in this article. Even though I contacted Lt. Turner at Delta Camp explaining that I was Moderating his Facebook page, he said that my son had already been accused of somehow gaining access to Facebook (which is against inmate rules) and had already been rolled out and transferred back to Susanville.
Even though he was an inmate my son was extremely proud of what he was accomplishing and was even talking to Cal Fire Personnel about what it would take to become a jumper after his release date in 2014.
Of course we are fighting it. After all if I was testifying to the fact that I was running the Facebook page and found photos on news agency sites, how can my son be responsible? If that be the case, then what about all of these other orange suit faces being shown all over the internet?
Oops, sorry for such a long reply.

GaryBlanchette
GaryBlanchette

part 1. My son was trained to fight fires at the Susanville Facility and got his credetials there certified by Cal Fire. He was then Transferred to Delta Camp #8 where in turn, fought along side Cal Fire and Forestry Personnel at all the big fires during the recent 2013 fire season. He specialized in the use of chainsaws which might not sound like much, but when a person is cutting down trees to create fire breaks 10' away from flames, it can be tricky.
The hardest part is to remember that even though they were risking their lives at these fires, that they are are still orange suits. After spending 2 or 3 weeks in the field they had to return to Camp where they clear fire roads on a daily basis.

KathleenLong
KathleenLong

I think sending these indivuals to firecamps,is a great idea,I agree giving them skills,working together,doing a good service for the community..As far as the comment about,not be your typical grade school model,was their any reason for that,we are all human,we make mistakes,in the heart of it,their are many people incarcerated that doesn't make the "typical fire fighter any better than anyone else"I just didn't think there was any reason to go there.

IceToes
IceToes

Good idea to give the inmates some skills, a structure, a team to work with, and a little pride. Sad that so many states that had programs for trades cut them back. Prisons really are just warehouses in lots of places. Any person in prison who wants to do better should have a chance like this! Everybody needs something worthwhile to do. It's human nature.

HowardCurtis
HowardCurtis

This is the first I`ve heard or seen in reference to Ca. non-violent prison inmates being trained and working as firefighters, as well as 4,000 living in 42 sites in the state!!  I live in Texas where 10s of 1000s of acres and hundreds of buildings and homes were destroyed by wildfires two summers ago. This is the most common sense application of occupational therapy rehab application in terms of a "win-win" situation!! $80 MILLION in savings for Californians!! Not mentioned in the article is the "collateral effect" on the firefighters who work alongside the inmates. It seems obvious that, even without the "official position of mentors," they, by example, and need to give instructions, have a major role in the rehab/training process, thereby increasing/elevating their own self-esteem and sense of accomplishment as well. Of course. kudos to the other states doing this as well.
OKAY TEXAS!! WAY PAST TIME TO FOLLOW THESE ROLE MODEL STATES!!
OH!!~BTW!! How about flood control/prevention in vulnerable areas around the Country using a similar method plan??!! How about rebuilding infra-structure??!! I KNOW if I were a qualified inmate, I would much rather be on the outside living and working, rather than wasting away at the people`s expense on the inside!! That`s just the way I am!! AND I would venture to say there are 1000s more inmates with that kind of common sense!!

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