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