The State Worker

California prison officials try to clean up message mess

Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. AP

Rough week for top brass at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

First, they had to fend off worries that they were about to unleash a wave of violence-prone criminals into low-security fire camps, with reports on Monday that Corrections was thinking about expanding the pool of candidates to inmates with violent felony convictions.

Then the Associated Press reported that roughly 40 percent of the 3,700 inmates in fire camps at the end of September had been convicted of violent crimes, despite a statement, now deleted, on the department’s website that said only non-violent offenders served fire duty.

Soon, Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, and the state firefighters’ union President, Mike Lopez, were calling for an investigation whether the policy was putting unarmed fire supervisors or the public in danger.

On Thursday, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, hoping to calm fears and relieve the political pressure on his department, defended the policy and tried to reconcile the conflicting messages. “Even some of our own people haven’t understood it,” he said.

The misunderstanding, Beard said, comes down to the difference between person convicted of a violent act and a person who is prone to act violently. Inmates with the most serious convictions – murder and rape, for example – are automatically excluded from fire duty even if they are angels behind bars. Other inmates whose crimes aren’t classified as violent are banned from fire camps duty if they act violently in prison or if circumstances surrounding their non-violent convictions indicate violent tendencies, such as stalking.

Some inmates who came in with a violent history change their behavior, however, and some of those violent offenders may get fire duty after rigorous screening, Beard said.

“The people that we’re sending to the fire camps today are the same as the people we’ve sent the last 10 to 15 years,” said Beard said. “Nothing has changed.”