Capitol Alert

Violent offenders could join fire camps next year

Inmates in state prisons for violent crimes may be deployed across California for the first time next year to help fight fires as the pool of lower-level offenders normally assigned to such duty has dwindled over the past several years.

Officials this year have assigned about 3,800 lower-level offenders in minimum security to the dozens of camps that dot California, but the number is shrinking – collateral impact from a 4-year-old state law intended to reduce prison overcrowding.

That, in turn, has prompted officials in the prison system and the state firefighting corps to reconsider a long-standing policy that has excluded inmates whose crimes fall under the state’s legal definition of “violent offense.”

Although the 23 crimes on the list include murder, robbery, rape and sexual abuse of a child, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa said the department will remain cautious filling camp positions through rigorous screening. Only volunteers with a long history of institutional model behavior will be considered for the positions, which are highly prized by inmates. Those convicted of the worst crimes will still be excluded, he said.

“The way it is now is the way it will be,” Sessa said. “These inmates will be minimum-security inmates. They’ll be evaluated on how they are now, not how they were (when they were convicted).”

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Janet Upton said in an email that inmates “play a critical role” in state firefighting efforts each year, particularly when regular crews are stretched thin. At the height of the season this year, Upton said, about 70 percent of Cal Fire’s 6,900 firefighters were battling blazes.

The Corrections Department is still working on the proposal, which will then go to Cal Fire for approval. The departments formed a committee over the summer, Upton said, to consider how to keep the inmate program adequately staffed in an era of severe drought and epic wildfires.

Mike Lopez, president of Cal Fire Local 2881, said he’s worried that inmates with violent histories present a greater threat to the unarmed firefighters who oversee prisoners working with shovels and other hand tools.

“I’m very concerned about the rank and file,” Lopez said Monday, and expressed “disappointment” that the union didn’t have a seat on the summer committee on inmate fire camps assignment changes.

But Upton said the committee’s discussions were limited to recruitment incentives, such as increasing inmate pay or family visitation, not issues of direct concern to the union.

“In the meantime,” Upton said, “we’d be happy to discuss the recruitment incentive brainstorming ideas with Mike if he cares to call.”

Sessa said the department has “never had a safety problem with a fire crew on the fire lines.” In rare instances, he said, inmates have walked away from camp, but they were almost always “newbies” who were testing new-found freedoms and limitations and were quickly located.

California has used prison labor since its inception. Convicted offenders built roads in 1850, a practice that accelerated with the first state prison road camp in 1915. The first fire camp co-managed by the Department of Corrections and the old Division of Forestry opened in Fallbrook 69 years ago.

Today, fire camp jobs are considered plumb positions for male and female inmates who clear screening and four weeks of fitness and fire-suppression training at a handful of facilities, including the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown. Once deployed, the inmates earn $1.45 to $3.90 per day for physically intense tasks such as cutting fire breaks during fire seasons or filling sandbags during winter floods.

“They also eat better,” Sessa said, and earn early-release credits.

The number of lower-risk inmates is dwindling, however. A 2011 law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to relieve overcrowding in state prisons has been sending “low-level” nonviolent convicts to local jails. The resulting inmate attrition since then has thinned the penal system population – and squeezed the pipeline for prime fire camp candidates.

Last month, according to state data, 3,732 inmates were in fire camps, down 8 percent from September 2011.

Lopez said the downturn in available inmate labor is an opportunity to add more entry-level firefighters, who earn the state’s hourly minimum wage.

“Of course they have to weigh their costs,” Lopez said. “But (Cal Fire) just looks at dollars and cents because they’re cheap.”

Jon Ortiz: 916-321-1043, @TheStateWorker. Stay on top of news about where you work and what you earn. Sign up for The State Worker newsletter, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest events, insight and analysis of politics, policy and trends that matter to California’s state government employees.