USA — Drivers traveling along Highway 138 between Lake Silverwood and the backside of Crestline probably don’t even think twice about the sign directing visitors to Pilot Rock Conservation Camp No. 15.
A camp for tourists? Maybe a Boy Scout or Girl Scout camp? No, it’s one of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) 44 conservation camps created to house convicted felons.
You won’t see chain link fences around the perimeter of Pilot Rock Conservation Camp, nor guard towers with armed guards keeping watch.
Constructed in 1959, Pilot Rock, along with the other conservation camps in California, is designed for minimum custody inmates. In order to be eligible to participate in the program, inmates must be physically fit and have no history of violent crimes including kidnapping, sex offenses, arson or escape.
The mission of the state’s camp program is to provide cooperative agencies with an able-bodied, trained work force for fire suppression and other emergencies such as floods and earthquakes, according to the Conservation Camps website.
In addition, inmate crews work on conservation projects on public lands and also provide a trained labor force for local community services projects such as tree removal.
The program teaches firefighting teamwork, Lt. Peter Spoto, camp commander for Pilot Rock, said. Inmates work side by side, and learn how to get along with each other.
Unlike inmates housed in any of the state’s prisons, conservation camp inmates must learn tolerance and to depend on each other.
They work side by side on a fire line, and they learn that the enemy is the fire raging in front of them, not each other, Spoto said.
Inmates are housed in dormitories at the camp, and receive training in how to fight a wildland fire.
Inmates work in teams, and fire suppression skills are taught by supervisors from Cal Fire or other agencies such as Los Angeles County Fire.
Several of the inmates have gone on to jobs with the U.S. Forest Service, or Cal Fire, Spoto said.
But inmates have other career paths to follow other than firefighting. Some have gone on to be plumbers, electricians, wastewater treatment experts and cooks, skills learned at a conservation camp.
Inmates can make $1.45 a day, while cooks can make $2.50 a day, depending on their skills. Once dispatched to fight a wildfire, inmates make $1 an hour.
The program has saved taxpayers roughly $80 million a year in firefighting services, said Spoto.
Inmates also help with snow removal and sandbagging for flood control work.
Mountain residents probably have seen crews out working on the highway, clearing brush or felling trees. Inmates are dressed in orange-colored helmets and work clothes, with the words CDC prisoner printed on one leg and on the backs of their shirts and jackets.
Spoto said while residents can be appreciative of the work inmate crews do, fighting fires or clearing brush, a simple thank you is sufficient, he said.
We want people to know not to give them anything, he said. They are not allowed to have any contraband.
Residents especially shouldn’t be offering inmates rides.
An inmate, Edward David Torrison, 23, walked away from Pilot Rock earlier this year. He was found wandering around El Cajon in San Diego County. He’s now being housed at the California Institution for Men in Chino.
We usually catch them with hours, Spoto said. Once they run away, they’re never allowed to come back to a Conservation Camp.