Friday, October 26, 2007

Firefighting Offers a Way Out for California's Offenders

Generally ignored by the media is the fact that 4,000 of California's front line firefighters are convicted felons.

by: Lou Angeli

San Diego County, CA (October 25, 2007) -- California officials have created a program that has raised some eyebrows, but has contributed positively to emergency response: inmate firefighters. The California Department of Corrections (CDC) has partnered with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CDF) and the Los Angeles County Fire Department to oversee more than 4,000 state inmates who fight wildfires in 10 counties.

During this week’s series of wildfire conflagrations in southern California, thousands of inmate firefighters worked side-by side on the firelines with municipal, state and federal fire personnel. Most are determined to repay their debt to society with the hope that their efforts will lead to a brighter future and possibly even an early release. (1)

During this campaign, 2,600 inmates have been deployed, most of whom are seeing action at one the largest blazes – the Harris fire. Some work for as long as 48 hours without a break.

Last year, California’s inmate firefighters worked more than 1 million hours fighting over 200 major fires. Like their professional counterparts, they carry out their duties in difficult and dangerous conditions. Time and time again they have been commended for their hard work, team spirit and fearlessness.

Working the difficult job of fighting fires is not without risk. In 1999 Inmate Firefighter Martin Stiles was working with a camp crew in Azusa, battling the Piru blaze in Ventura County. According to a Department of Corrections report, Stiles and his crewmates were constructing a fire break in the mountainous terrain of the Los Padres National Forest when he fell 150 feet to his death from a steep hillside.

"He was an inmate, but he died a firefighter," former CDC Director "Cal" Terhune said.

Work release programs (common in jails, less so in prisons) are a useful way to help prisoners remain integrated with society, and inmates who are typically bored out of their minds might relish any opportunity to avoid the mundane life that prisons offer.

“It's tempting to wonder whether California allows inmates to do this dangerous work because it attaches little value to their lives,” says T Chris in his blog entitled “The Politics of Crime.” (2)

But Chris adds, “It's reassuring to know that inmates at least receive training in firefighting before they're put to work.”

In California, only minimum custody inmates may participate in the program. To qualify, they must be physically fit and have no history of violent crime including kidnapping, sex offenses, arson or escape. Most have sentences of two years or less, 8 months of which will be spent outside the walls of the prisons in the camps. Both men and women inmates receive an intensive 4 week training course in firefighting and safety techniques.

In Georgia, Inmate Firefighters serve in the community firehouses among the civilian population. To date, 18 fire stations are staffed by inmates, who feel that the work allows them to make amends for their wrongs. Since 2000, they have handled more than 21,000 calls, according to a prison system report issued in August.

Firefighter Juanita Vega, is on the back end of her 10-year sentence for trafficking methamphetamine. Like the others, firefighting is now in her blood.

"I have a passion in my heart for firefighting." she says.

Cobb County Fire Chief Rebecca Denlinger, one of a handful of women in the nation leading a large fire department, said she believes firefighting will be a "life-changing experience" for (inmates) at Allendale Prison. (3)

In California, some say that the motivation for the inmate program appears to be related less to rehabilitation than to a shortage of California firefighters.

“Given the overcrowding in California's prisons,’ say blogger Tchris, ‘The state should consider an early release program for inmate firefighters who prove their value to society -- and communities should commit to hiring them after their release.”
Some released inmates make the transition to full-time firefighters, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) Captain Bryan Lee. Lee, 37, has been fighting fires for 16 years as a civilian and is leading a 13-man inmate team tackling the Harris Fire.

"They're required to work hard, they're expected to work hard, and they do," Lee told a reporter from Agence France-Presse. Lee said he knew of one former inmate firefighter who had gone on to become a captain.

Inmate firefighter John Baxter has just 6 months remaining before his release. Although there’s no discussion regarding his specific offenses, Baxter feels that firefighting provides inmates with a sense of doing good after years of criminal offenses.

“I’m looking forward to returning home,” Baxter said. “These days I wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose.”


Author’s note:

During a break, I sat with one of the CDC Firefighters who introduced himself as Raymond. We chatted a bit, and during the conversation I asked the 23 year old from Compton whether Inmate Firefighters responded to structural incidents.

“No, we don’t!” Ray answered. “But I bet some of these guys would be great at forcible entry!”


(1) Agence France-Presse
(2) “The Politics of Crime” TChris
(3) The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My husband is a cdc inmate as well as firefighter. my husband is in just as much ,if not more danger as a civilan firefighter.These men deserve our thanks and respect,after all were they not on the front lines of the oct 07 wildfires risking their lives as well? SO TO ALL CDC FIREFIGHTERS,