Saturday, August 31, 2013

California Inmates Fight The Rim Wildfire

Approximately 673 of the wildland firefighters battling the ferocious blaze around Yosemite National Park have a prison identification number.  They are part of California's Conservation Camp Program (CCCP), which takes convicts out of jail cells and puts them on the front lines of wildfires, where they earn $1 an hour cutting containment lines that keep flames from spreading.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation CCCP has sent 621 men and 52 women to tackle the so-called Rim Fire, which has engulfed nearly 300 square miles of land in 12 days. More have been deployed to 20 other fires across the state.  They work 24-hour shifts, sleep in tents at base camp and work side-by-side with other firefighters. They risk their lives.

Other states have inmate firefighters, but California's program — with 42 minimum-security camps and more than 4,100 volunteers — is the biggest and oldest, dating to 1946.  The inmates get some time shaved off their sentences.

Applicants undergo two weeks of punishing fitness training: grueling hikes, 9-minute mile-long runs and a regime of military-style calisthenics. Then they get two weeks of job training by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.  They hike straight up mountains with 45 pounds on their backs, carrying tools and water and other necessities.

Conservation camps are open to inmates serving between 12 months and 7.5 years who have not been convicted of arson, murder, kidnapping or a sexual offense. Violent crimes like robbery and carjacking are considered on a case-by-case basis.
The camps are not fenced in but CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said there are "very few" walkaways. The inmates are given dangerous tools, like saws to cut down trees and Pulaski axes to dig up roots.  All of them are volunteers.  They can't just force them out there like a chain-gang.

The benefits include decent pay by prison standards: $1 an hour while fighting fires and $2 a day in the off-season, when inmates do other conservation work.  Prisoners say being in the great outdoors and the community is humanizing and an antidote to the monotony of lockup. If they behave, they can request a camp closer to their family, and they can cut their sentence by half in some cases.

The program has the lowest recidivism rate in the system, though it's still a depressing 55 percent.  The state estimates it saves taxpayers more than $80 million a year with the cheap labor, and it's been recruiting volunteers from county lockups because of a court-ordered realignment keeping non-violent felons out of overcrowded state prisons.
They do very laborious work and it frees up firefighters to extinguish the fires using hoses and water.

When the convicts are paroled, they leave with skills that, as the Rim Fire shows, are always in demand. Officials could not provide figures but said CalFire does hire ex-prisoners from the program.  (U.S. News, 8/30/2013)

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