Inmate firefighting program at risk

Inmate firefighting program at risk

17 May 2013

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USA — One of the consequences of a 2011 state law aimed at relieving prison overcrowding is that it also reduced the pool of lower-level offenders eligible for inmate work camps that help fight brush fires.

The Public Safety Realignment Act transferred responsibility for housing and monitoring some offenders convicted of nonviolent, nonserious crimes from the state to the counties.

With that shift went thousands of offenders, many of whom could have been used in a long-standing program that allows prison inmates to serve their time in a conservation camp, learning to assist fire crews by clearing brush and fighting blazes.

The state operates 42 of the camps, including four in San Diego County.

Capt. Jorge Santana, a fire camp liaison for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said early projections showed that under prison realignment the number of inmates in the camps might shrink from more than 4,300 to about 2,500, and that could have caused camp closures.

But so far that has not happened, in part because of recent changes to how prisoners are classified that expanded the pool of eligible inmates.

Santana said current projections put the program’s inmate population at no fewer than 3,700 in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. As of Friday, there were 4,117 inmates in the fire camps.

“I expect it to stay around 4,000,” Santana said.

The classification process for prisoners uses a point system that takes into consideration an inmate’s behavior and needs, as well as the public’s safety. It affects where inmates are housed within a facility, how they are transferred between facilities and what privileges they are allowed.

“We didn’t put more dangerous people out there, but we did change our classifications for all our inmates,” Santana said, adding that prisoners spend an average of 3½ to four years in the work camps. “The minimum criteria that ensures public safety has not changed.”

Several counties, including San Diego, have begun the process of contracting with the state to send lower-level offenders to the fire camps. The move is expected to help free up space in the jails, which now house offenders sentenced to years in custody as a result of realignment.

Last month, Riverside County became the first in California to authorize sending up to 200 inmates to the state camps, which are run by the prison department and Cal Fire.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has been working on a similar contract that would allow the transfer of up to 100 local inmates to the state-run camps.

Sheriff’s Capt. Frank Clamser said he expects the contract to be approved within the next 30 to 90 days. The county would have to pay the state a little more than $46 per inmate per day, money that would likely come from realignment funding allocated to the county by the state.

The average daily rate of housing inmates in jail is $133.

The county grand jury released a report this month recommending studies be done and plans be put in place to ensure that the realignment law does not hinder firefighting preparedness, particularly in the backcountry. Female inmates are housed at Rainbow and at Puerta La Cruz near Warner Springs. Male inmates are housed at the La Cima camp near Julian and a camp in McCain Valley.

The goal of any plan, developed by the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Department, should be to keep the camps open year-round using current levels of qualified inmates from state and county detention facilities, the report said.

Julie Hutchinson, a Cal Fire battalion chief who works with the fire camp program, said that although authorities have not yet seen a big impact on the fire camp population because of realignment, it is an issue officials are watching closely. She said it’s encouraging that Los Angeles and San Diego and other counties are working on contracts with the state.

“I think (the program’s success) is going to be very dependent upon our agreements with these other agencies,” she said.

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