Magazine article Corrections Forum

California's Inmate Firefighting Crews: Providing a Valubale Service

Magazine article Corrections Forum

California's Inmate Firefighting Crews: Providing a Valubale Service

Article excerpt

The fire whirl came spinning up the steep slopes of Big Sur like a dust devil of flame. It headed for the new guy on the fire crew, Billy Gray, who threw on his shroud and bowed his head just in time. The whirl washed over him, then exploded into a grass fire.

"I turned and yelled, 'Spot fire!' I thank God I didn't get burned," says Gray, recounting his recent baptism as a prison inmate-turned-firefighter. More than 1 in 10 firefighters at the Basin Complex - California's biggest blaze in the summer of 2008- were trained state prisoners, according to Ben Arnoldy, in an article for The Christian Science Monitor.

Despite the danger and 24hour shifts involving 3,000-foot climbs with 40-pound packs, Gray pushes on. "Plenty of times I've wanted to quit," he says. "It teaches you to persevere."

Of the more than 4,400 inmates that participate at any given time in the California's Conservation Camp Program, many say they have a positive experience. CDCR reports high motivation among inmates to get this job. Not only is participation high and the benefit rich to them, but their work has proven invaluable to the state. There have been fires like the blaze near Santa Barbara this past summer where inmates made up to 80% of the crew. Doing the work not only provides a plethora of skills to offenders but it shaves time off their sentences - two days for every one day they serve.

Carefully Screened

They feel it's a privilege to get to serve, says California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson, Paul Verke. They are carefully screened. Only minimum custody adult inmates - both male and female - are eligible to participate; the average sentence of adults selected for camp is less than two years. To be eligible, they must be physically fit and have no history of violent crime, including kidnapping, arson, sex offenses or attempt at escape.

Likewise juveniles must earn their way into the camp placement, according to the CDCR. They must be medically cleared, have between four and 36 months left to serve, be free of major rule infractions and have no violence, sex offense or arson in their backgrounds.

The CDCR jointly manages training camps for adults and a small number juveniles with the state agency CAL FIRE and a few adult camps with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. They undergo a vigorous two-week physical fitness training program and are trained for two more weeks in fire safety and suppression techniques. …

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