Violent inmates have fought California fires for decades – and done well

Evidence suggests that inmates convicted of violent crimes have long been on California fire crews. A plan to expand their presence was scrapped. 

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmate work crew builds a containment line ahead of flames from a fire near Sheep Ranch, Calif., last month. California officials on Wednesday scrapped a plan to let inmates with violent backgrounds to work outside prison walls fighting wildfires. Currently only minimum-security inmates with no history of violent crimes can officially participate.

On Wednesday, California corrections officials scrapped a plan to let inmates who have committed violent crimes officially serve on the state’s fire lines.

But evidence suggests that, in fact, inmates with violent pasts have been fighting wildfires in California for decades, yet officials have not acknowledged it. Moreover, several fire captains and fire experts interviewed for this article suggested that this arrangement has worked well, saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars, adding much-needed manpower, and giving the inmates a sense of purpose.

“I’d go into a fire with these guys carrying nothing but hand tools and chainsaws any time,” says George Nunez, a captain for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) based in Chino. 

The proposal to officially open fire crews to inmates with violent pasts, first reported by the Associated Press Tuesday, drew objections from victim’s rights groups as well as some firefighters. “Every firefighter is going to have to watch his back,” says Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California.

Corrections officials responded by withdrawing the proposal Wednesday. But many people familiar with California’s inmate firefighting units say the debate is moot in many ways, because inmates convicted of violent crimes are already fighting fires.

Retired Orange County fire battalion chief Charles Nicola, who served on the front lines for the past 30 years, says it was open knowledge that many of the inmates in the fire camps had violent pasts. “We knew a lot of them had committed robberies or other violent things,” he says.

Mr. Nunez has worked with inmate crews for 10 years and says he is well aware of many violent offenses in the backgrounds of the men he has supervised over the years. “One guy was in for a home invasion 19 years ago,” he notes.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the corrections department contradicted earlier statements by officials and said that nearly 40 percent of the state’s inmate firefighters have convictions for violent offenses, according to AP.

“It’s mystifying as to why the department would continue to suggest they are not there,” says N. Prabha Unnithan, a sociologist and former director of the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who examined state data.

The growing need

The firefighters union is calling for an investigation, saying firefighters did not know they were working alongside inmates with a history of violence, AP reports.

Some of the confusion is based on California’s system of deciding who classifies as nonviolent. The state has very specific definitions of what is a violent crime, and these don’t always match up with what the public considers violent, says corrections department spokesman Bill Sessa. 

“Generally speaking, every state prison inmate has committed a crime the average person considers violent or they wouldn’t be there,” he says.

In addition, inmates can win good-behavior points that make them eligible for fire duty, which is voluntary.

Whatever the definition, Nunez has embraced his inmates. “These guys, they work hard to get here, and when they do, they don’t want to get kicked out.”

Mr. Nicola, the retired fire chief, says the program helps with the men’s feelings of self worth and rehabilitates them. “These were men who wanted to make a difference, to show that they could change,” Nicola adds. “They worked just as hard as anybody else, and when we were on the front lines with them, we trusted them like anyone else.”

The proposal to expand the program came from a growing need, as state prison populations shrink. The state has reclassified many felonies as misdemeanors – sending low-level offenders into local jails – and it has also begun emptying state prisons of low-risk inmates to ease overcrowding.

The result is that the inmate firefighting program – the largest and oldest in the country –has fewer nonviolent prisoners to draw from. It calls for some 4,400 prisoners, but currently there are only some 3,800 available to send out.

Nunez had a crew of 11 – six short of the regular 17-man crew he would like – as he cleared flood control basins Wednesday.

Safety measures

He and others are well aware of the risks associated with putting prisoners into the wilderness. Camps are guarded by armed corrections officers, but while out on fire duty they are under the supervision of unarmed fire captains such as Nunez.

There are 169 crews in camps all over the state, many close to communities. When the crews are not fighting fires, they reside in their camps, where they earn an average of $2 per day doing community service such as brush clearance.  

Nunez carries escape cards in his back pocket – mini-bios of his men, complete with photo and the crimes that landed the men in prison. Officials acknowledge that roughly nine inmates per year walk out of the camps. But Mr. Sessa of the corrections department claims that “the public has never been endangered by those walkouts.”

Nunez recalls one walkout from one of his camps, noting that it occurred while the crew was deep in the woods. “He was gone for half an hour, and he got so lost that he finally returned to camp in tears,” he says.

The man was swiftly packed off to prison, without any hope of returning to the program.  Any violation cancels the right to participate in a fire camp.

A 2011 investigative report by the Redding, Calif., Record Searchlight found at least 20 percent of camp inmates had been convicted of violent crimes such as robberies, car-jackings, and assaults. In 2010, the number was 23.4 percent. 

This week’s proposal to officially include inmates with convictions for violent crimes drew fire from Mike Lopez, who represents the more than 6,000 firefighters in Cal Fire.

“This has brought to light that the numbers of those with violent backgrounds has steadily risen,” says Mr. Lopez. “It seems to me that the department of corrections was trying to push the numbers even further.”

Others agree that the conversation spawned by the proposal could be beneficial.

Locking prisoners up with no effort at social integration is an outdated concept, says Char Miller, director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College in southern California. “The risk is outweighed by the benefits that this opportunity offers for the inmates and society.”

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