USA — Cynthia Hansen was a rebel in her youth, hanging out with the wrong crowd, doing drugs, and ultimately going to prison for second-degree robbery.
Now 30, and soon to be freed, she believes she has been reformed, thanks to a program that trains minimum-security inmates to become wildland firefighters.
“To fight fires was the most humbling experience of my life,” she said. “To see people crying and thanking you for saving their house, kids drawing signs with stuff like `Thank you so much’ and `We love you’ – that made me feel like I can actually do something with my life.”
Hansen volunteered to serve the last half of her seven-year sentence at Conservation Camp 13, which looks nothing like a prison.
Nestled in the hills above Malibu, the camp has dormitories instead of cells, and a friendly terrier instead of vicious guard dogs.
There are no walls topped with barbed wire – only forest for miles around.
“It’s beautiful out here,” said Lt. Dale Dronet, camp commander with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “The atmosphere is just great compared to a prison setting – it does a lot for them.”
Inmates can get up to two days taken off their sentences for every day served at the camp, the only one in Los Angeles County with an all-female crew, currently numbering 87.
Every morning, they leave the CDCR dormitories and “cross over” to the adjacent training grounds operated by the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
The women undergo vigorous physical training, including daily hikes up steep hillsides covered in thick brush, sometimes while carrying 25-pound backpacks filled with chainsaws and shovels.
When wildfires break out, their job is to build a containment line – a strip of land that has been cleared of anything flammable such as vegetation – to keep the blaze from spreading.
“Sometimes, you’re actually on the fire’s edge, and the fire’s burning, and you are actually cutting line right on the fire,” said Gina Kuykendall, 47, a grandmother from Shasta County who was convicted of selling meth.
“At times, you feel like you can’t take another step, you can’t breathe, you can’t see,” she added. “But you just keep going, and at the end, you sit back and you say, `We did it, look what we did.”‘
For Kari Meredith, 27, the work is grueling but deeply rewarding.
“It’s made me feel good about myself,” said the former addict serving time for petty theft and receiving a stolen vehicle.
“I’ve never, ever, in my life completed something this huge, and now I can wake up in the morning and like who I am, finally,” she added.
The state does not track recidivism rates in conservation camps, but the LAFD camp superintendent, Capt. Larry Tucker, is confident the training helps at least some – if not most – of the inmates turn their lives around.
“For whatever reason, a lot of them just have not made the best choices or best decisions when they were on the outside,” he said. “Hopefully, going through a program like this gives them more of an idea about making better decisions and working within society’s guidelines.”
Tucker noted the camp receives cards and letters at Christmas from former inmates expressing gratitude. One said she had been put in charge of an oil rig; several others reported joining the forest service.
“The work ethic, determination and acceptance of responsibility that they learn here doesn’t necessarily have to be applied in the fire arena,” Tucker said. “That can be used in any job that they seek out there in the world.”
Not everybody gets turned around by the program, at least in their first go-round.
Vanessa Rodriguez, 26, is now serving her third stint in a conservation camp. But this time, the Antelope Valley woman insists, will be her last.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 18, and I’m tired,” said Rodriguez, whose latest conviction was for false impersonation. “I know in my heart I’m done.
“It’s time to start living.”
Aside from helping to rehabilitate inmates, the conservation camps also ease the severe overcrowding in state prisons.
At the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, for instance, eight inmates are forced to share a cell, and those with minor offenses often find themselves next to murderers and others serving life sentences.
The conservation camps also lower the cost of firefighting. Inmates get paid only $1 an hour when summoned to emergencies, and $1.45 to $2.56 a day when performing community service projects.
The savings to state taxpayers come out to $80 million a year, according to the CDCR.
But Gov. Jerry Brown is under pressure from the U.S. Supreme Court to slash the population in state prisons by 33,000 over two years. The justices ruled the conditions inside resulted in “needless suffering and death.”
To fulfill the ruling, Brown approved a realignment plan that would use county jails to detain inmates with nonviolent, nonsexual and non-serious offenses, if their sentences are handed down Oct.1 or later.
Dana Toyama, a spokeswoman for CDCR, expects conservation camps will continue to have inmates through the fire season next year. Beyond that, however, the fate of the program is uncertain unless counties decide to send inmates to the conservation camps in the same way that the state has been doing.
“There are so many benefits to this program,” Toyama said. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep them operating, to keep them functioning.”
Steve Whitmore, spokesman for the Sheriff Lee Baca, who oversees county jails, agreed the conservation camps should be retained.
“We don’t know if it’s economically feasible, but our intent is to do that,” he said.
Alicia Bennici, 41, finished serving her two-year sentence for forgery last week – half of it in Camp 13 – and sounded optimistic about her prospects for successfully re-entering society.
“I have options,” said the former drug addict and mother of three from West Covina. She only hopes employers will not reject her job applications because of her criminal record.
“Just because of where we were at (prison), doesn’t mean we’re bad people,” Bennici said. “We’ve given back to the community.”
Hansen is due to be released around Christmas. The former rebel is determined to be a model of good behavior this time around.
“My little sister, she’s 15, she really needs me,” Hansen said. “She could go either way – go bad or go good. I hope I can encourage her to do good.”