Capitalizing on Inmate Firefighters

Image_washingtonpostThere’s no excuse for inmate firefighters becoming pawns of prison reform.

Inmate firefighters: it’s an odd term, isn’t it? “Firefighter” is a badge of honor, while “inmate” is a brand. Yet these particular convicted criminals are routinely sent on 16-mile marches to square off with raging wildfires for 24 hours at a time, carrying the mark of offenders while performing duties as honorable as they come. For about $2 an hour.

These men (and women) are typically housed in a more congenial, campus-like setting. They eat better than their counterparts who are still behind prison walls, and they’re addressed more cordially by both frontline custody personnel and the civilian training staffers who oversee their participation in California’s esteemed Conservation Camp program.

Most of these folks were convicted of non-violent crimes. But violent offenders have also swung picks and wielded shovels for the California Department of Forest and Fire Protection (CalFire) for decades, and a proposal to expand their participation was recently submitted by California corrections officials. Good thing it was withdrawn almost as soon as it was made public, as the plan could have been a disaster.

Natasha Geiling for thinkprogressCalifornia’s severe drought is well documented, and as you might expect, there has been a serious uptick in wildfires as a result. This past summer, the CDCR and their artfully serpentine union masters at the CCPOA formed a committee to consider ways to keep their inmate firefighter program sufficiently populated, as participants have dwindled by about 600 since last year, due in part to realignment, sentencing reform, and the changes wrought by Prop 47. The proposed solution was to formally allow assault and robbery offenders into the cadre of 3800 non-violent offenders who support professional firefighters in the field.

“All it does is enlarge the pool of inmates we look at, but it doesn’t change the nature of the inmate that we put in camp,” Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa told the Associated Press. “We still are not going to put an inmate in camp that has a violent attitude.”

Rim Fire_Inmate Fighters_Jae Hong - APSo while I may be speculating here, it seems as though, by way of a press release, the idea was really to grub for good PR that had been percolating into the ground before it could be utilized. Sort of a let’s make it official and call it innovation approach to keeping pace with the national dialogue on prison reform, with a boost from California’s wildfire epidemic. Classic CCPOA.

But here’s the problem: CalFire’s civilian training personnel –all professional firefighters– are ultimately responsible for producing results from this unique workforce. If these boots on the ground decide that Inmate Jones has the potential to excel in their program despite his robbery conviction, they should be able to greenlight him. In fact, we’ve trusted those “calls” for many years.California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection_Where Excuses Go to Die

There have always been standard CDCR classification processes that have been used as well, and no one is suggesting they shouldn’t be. But there has been, for decades, a more important (and unacknowledged) personal level of screening undertaken by the very civilian-first-responders proposing to march shoulder to shoulder into a firefight with the inmates in question. The gut instinct of professional firemen and veteran corrections officers has been what makes these camps so successful and saves the state so much money. It isn’t flawless –some bad apples do slip through the cracks– but attempts to bureaucratize that human element out of existence are absolutely the wrong course of action.

Put another way, co-opting, and thereby materially altering, an effective practice in order to thrust it into the public spotlight for PR kudos does a disservice to everyone involved –especially the guys on the line.

Inmate Firefighter Crew__Photo Credit APFurthermore, as they are currently run, conservation camps are a privilege and an incentive for inmates who are given a chance to experience what it’s like to accomplish something honorable through extremely hard work. Reverting solely to which inmates “qualify” based on a narrow, paper-pusher definition of violent versus non-violent offenses would likely have the very negative consequence of diluting the program’s proven workforce. Candidates would suddenly run the gamut from excellent to idiotic, based on what’s in their files. (Not to mention on the favors they’ve done, the information they’ve passed, or the deals they’ve made back on the Yard. Believe me, I’ve lived it.)

Right now, CalFire conservation camp participants are separated from the main prison population because, regardless of where they started, they’ve earned the right to be seen climbing a higher road. Opening the floodgates and bringing the general population to them would diminish this, reversing opportunities for growth and encouraging many to revert to their old behaviors in order to survive.

Mucking around with a program just so it can be publicly touted as the CDCR’s way of keeping pace with the modern reform and California Conservation Camp Crew Membersrehabilitation movement would expose an otherwise successful and effective operational methodology to the same stifling bureaucracy that has brought the entire California penal system to its knees (see: inmate healthcare).

It didn’t work this time.
Let’s hope, for the sake and safety of our state, CDCR business-as-usual won’t get its way if this proposal returns.