USA — With New Mexico’s fire season promising to be brutal and unrelenting, state forestry officials want to increase their firefighting crews — with prison inmates.
The state has trained five crews, a total of 60 minimum-security inmates, that can be called on to fight fires at any time, said Dan Ware, a New Mexico State Forestry Department spokesman. State officials plan to recruit more inmates for this season.
“Using inmates allows us to have high-quality hand crews at our disposal at a moment’s notice to aid in firefighting,” Ware said.
He said saving New Mexico money in hard economic times is one benefit of the inmate work program. Inmates are paid about $1 an hour, compared to state forestry workers, who earn around $17 an hour fighting fires.
“One of the goals of the program is rehabilitation, to give inmates training so when they’re released they have something to fall back on,” Ware said.
Benjamin Speed, 28, an inmate at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, was imprisoned for committing burglaries to support his drug habit. He said learning firefighting skills gave him a second chance.
The program “will give you the tools and knowledge to make it on the outside if you choose to work toward bettering yourself as a person and a working citizen,” Speed said in an email.
“It has also given my family the comfort of knowing that I have my head in the right direction,” said Speed, who has taken several firefighting courses since 2009.
The New Mexico Inmate Work Camp Program, which also includes furniture making and clothing production, began in 1996.
The inmates who qualify — mostly drug offenders, and other non-violent criminals — are trained in wildland firefighting techniques, through both field and classroom study, Ware said.
Once inmates get out, they are qualified firefighters.
States including California have similar inmate work programs.
“There’s no downside to it,” said Shannon Reynolds, a spokesman for the New Mexico Corrections Department. “It contributes to protecting not only the state but private property, too.”
Fires have already consumed thousands of acres around New Mexico this season – a total of 46 separate fires burned in a single week in April — and dry and windy conditions are predicted to continue through the spring and summer.
Inmate crews have worked alongside other firefighters for many of the recent wildfires, and were instrumental in saving a private ranch when other crews had been diverted elsewhere, Ware said.
“Now we just have to find enough eligible inmates to expand our crews,” Reynolds said.