From behind bars to fighting fires, prisoners prove their worth

As California braces for another bad fire season, the state is turning to an unusual source to fight fires: California’s prison inmates.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has partnered with firefighters from across the state to fight fires.

The inmates are part of the Conservation Camp Program, and they are eligible to take part in the program as long as they have no history of sex offenses, arson, or kidnapping.

The prisoners, who must go through rigorous training in order to be certified, experience privileges not often available to the typical inmate. They are able to spend their time outside, free from the confines of their cells, while shortening their sentences in the process.

“For every day that they serve, inmates receive two days off of their sentences,” CDCR Spokesman Seth Unger said.

The program, which has been in existence since 1946, serves as a way for inmates to learn skills that are marketable outside of prison walls.

“If you have the option of an inmate that’s been out there providing this community service for the last two years of his sentence versus someone sitting on a bunk at San Quentin, the firefighter that has worked alongside the state’s firefighting force is a lot more marketable,” Unger said.

Although the inmates are able to experience a taste of freedom, they are closely monitored by correctional officers that are with them throughout the day. In addition, the officers run headcounts every couple of hours to ensure that no one has escaped.

Although the officers closely observe the inmates, their watch is largely precautionary.

“Inmates that are actually in the program are in the final phase of their sentence so there is no incentive for them to escape” Unger said. “To escape from a camp is serious and would add significant time to their sentence.”

In the recent Angora blaze south of Lake Tahoe, nearly 330 inmates took part in the effort to fight the fire. There, the inmates, who earn $1 an hour, were often positioned at the front lines. Working alongside the CAL firefighters, the inmates cleared brush, built fire lines, cut down trees, and responded to hot spots. The job is hard and the hours are long. Typically, inmates work around the clock in shifts that range from 8-16 hours.

“They work hand in hand with CAL Fire in every aspect of firefighting and are a very important part of the state’s firefighter response team,” Unger said.
Currently, there are 200 fire crews made up of inmates. Besides wildfires, the crews also respond to other natural disasters including earthquakes and floods as well as search and rescue operations.

“The Conservation Camp Program provides an enormous benefit to offenders. They learn skills, teamwork and discipline as well as a solid work ethic that will serve them well when they are released from prison,” CDCR Secretary James Tilton said in a press release. “The citizens of California benefit by having a fully trained workforce able to respond to fires. Moreover, the program saves the state more than $80 million every year that otherwise would be paid to accomplish the same tasks.”

With the state’s resources already stretched thin, the services of the inmates have proven to be invaluable.

“There are numerous fires that need to be fought. We have more than 4,400 inmate firefighters in the program and they go places where bulldozers and heavy equipment can’t. They really provide a service to the state in the manpower that they are able to actually utilize,” Unger said.

Recently, there has been a need for the inmate firefighters.

“There is definitely an increased demand for them this time of year,” Unger said. “The Governor actually issued an executive order early this year that allowed for a higher percentage of the staff that is out on the fire lines to be inmate firefighters. This should enable us to put more inmate work crews out there to actually fight fires on the line.”

While the program offers many benefits to the inmates, many see it as a way to help them give back to the community.

“A lot of these inmates are people that were convicted of something like a burglary or a home robbery.” Unger said. “Now these are the same people that are actually going out and protecting homes and protecting people’s livelihood and really helping give back to the communities they may have victimized prior to incarceration, so it’s a great program that provides benefits both to the state and to the inmates.”

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