Trust in inmate crews withstands trial by fire

Trust in inmate crews withstands trial by fire

11 January 2009

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USA — Inmates in the E-Unit at Four Mile Correctional Center in Cañon City flipped through TV channels searching for news reports on the Olde Stage Road fire.

They were hoping the wind-whipped blaze that was threatening homes and causing mass evacuations in Boulder County on Wednesday might temporarily unlock prison gates for them.

On Thursday at 7:45 a.m., the inmate firefighters got the call they wanted.

” ‘Get ready,’ ” Andre Burrus, 41, said his crew boss, prison employee Dan Spinuzzi, announced minutes before they were to board the shuttle.

It was an order that gave Burrus a feeling of elation. He says he’s a prison preacher because he’s always offering advice to younger firefighting crew members, including how firefighting can change their lives.

His eagerness would seem curious to anyone who knows the nature of his job. The work of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team is dirty, exhausting and treacherous. But Burrus prefers it to the dreary, tense life behind bars.

On Thursday, after a four-hour bus ride, the minimum-security inmates trudged up a steep hill in Boulder County, lugging axes, chain saws, shovels, radios, survival gear and water. They were lightly dressed for a stiff wind that gusted up to 40 mph.

Four unarmed prison staffers, including Spinuzzi, supervised the 17 inmates, who split into two groups on the top of the hill and headed in opposite directions along a snaking ridge.

“We protect their lives, and we depend on them to protect our lives,” Spinuzzi said. “There has to be trust.”

The prisoners used pickaxes and shovels to crumble logs that glowed red when a gust of wind blew. They spread the ashes and covered them with wet black dirt. They were well-prepared for the task.

Since their training last spring, they had been called to fight 20 wildfires across Colorado, including battling a fire in April on the Fort Carson Army base that seemed to fight back whenever flames ignited live ammunition on a war-games training ground.

“You’d be working, and all of a sudden you’d hear, ‘Kaboom,’ ” Spinuzzi said.

The prisoners were on a mop-up mission Thursday.

They were finding hot spots that might reignite grass and brush and again threaten the luxury homes clinging to mountain slopes, which had narrowly avoided destruction the night before. The inmates noted that the outlines of still-smoldering burn paths led to the porches of many homes.

The inmate-firefighting crews are self-funding through fees and give inmates a chance to learn a job skill they could use on the outside, Spinuzzi said. They also can get their prison sentences reduced.

Inmates earn their way onto firefighting crews at three of Colorado’s lower-security prisons as they approach parole eligibility with good behavior. They can get booted off for one mess-hall tussle, so they tend to follow rules, Spinuzzi said. Sex offenders can’t join.

The program has proved to be valuable, not only for private-property owners whose homes or lives are saved but for the inmates themselves, he said. The recidivism rate of members who have been on crews the past eight years and later were released is lower than for inmates who sit on their cots and don’t work, he said.

Wages for the inmate firefighters — $6 a day — beats the 60-cent daily pay other inmates get. But the money isn’t the reward they talk about most.

What matters most is how the job makes them feel about themselves, the feeling they have when bystanders in towns they’ve protected cheer or when they’re given pies or home-cooked meals, said Burrus, convicted in 2005 in Colorado Springs on drug charges.

“I’ve always been on the other side getting into trouble,” Burrus said. “Instead of sending my daughter a mug shot, I sent her a picture of me fighting a fire. She wrote me and told me how proud she was of me. That made me feel good.”

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