USA — SUISUN CITY — Mirrioul Tolliver, a jail inmate from Vallejo, has two years left on his 12-year sentence for burglary.
But when he’s out in the wildlands, clearing fire lines with chain saws and pickaxes alongside some of the state’s top firefighters, he’s not thinking about the hours ticking by.
“You feel like you’re part of something that’s saving lives,” Tolliver said. “It allows me to continue on. You don’t mind doing it, and you look forward to doing it again.”
Lugging their 50-pound backpacks loaded with water and fuel, sometimes for miles to remote areas where bulldozers fear to tread, the Delta Conservation Camp’s Crew 3 is often first to the fire lines, getting none of the glory afforded their professional counterparts.
It’s strenuous, often dangerous work, and state firefighters say that without their cohorts in orange, their efforts wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
“When we have our inmate firefighters with us on the lines, they are a welcome sight,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Mike Ramirez. “The labor force they bring, the amount of work they can do in a short amount of time is unbelievable. … We couldn’t do it without them.”
At Delta Camp in Solano County, one of 43 fire camps run by the state’s Department of Corrections and Cal Fire, nearly 120 inmates are housed in campus-style dorms. Accommodations include sleeping quarters, a dining hall, recreation facilities and a TV room.
The camps are voluntary, and landing a spot is considered a privilege. Inmates undergo a stringent selection process — they must be low-level offenders with no violent or sexual offenses, and have a history of good behavior. On top of that, they must be physically fit. Would-be firefighters are put through an intense boot camp, and they must attend a two-week Cal Fire firefighting course at the Susanville correctional facility.
Once in camp, according to Delta Camp Lt. Sid Turner, inmates must adjust from a “yard mentality” — where racial divisions are intensified — to one of teamwork.
“In the main yard, everything is done by race,” said Delta Camp inmate Kenneth Nazario, of West Covina. “Here, all of that gets thrown out the window.”
Nazario, incarcerated for methamphetamine possession, is the crew’s “dragspoon,” ensuring fire lines are cut properly and providing first aid for injuries. The work, he said, has benefitted him both physically and mentally.
“It’s a privilege compared to being behind the wall,” Nazario said. “We’re dealing with the public day in and day out.”
The camps are a year-round program; when inmates aren’t fighting fires, they keep busy with other projects, working eight hours a day on grading and cleanup, even flood recovery and search and rescue. In total, inmates provide more than 2 million hours of emergency response annually, Ramirez said.
The roughly 4,100 inmates in fire camps save the state more than $100 million a year in fire suppression and grading costs, according to Capt. Jorge Santana of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In addition to the financial rewards, he said, the inmates benefit by learning skills to become productive members of society. Mission-wise, the program’s recidivism rate is the lowest in the state.
“Typically, these guys may not get along when they’re in an institutional setting,” Santana said. “But out here, they’re sharing food off their plates. They’re basically looking out for each other’s lives.”
On a typical morning, the crew rises at 5 a.m.; after showers and breakfast, they’re on the road by 9. Not only do they eat better food than the general prison population, they’re also paid $1.45 per day on regular days, and $24 a day fighting fires. While that may not seem like much, it’s the highest wage among state inmates. Some inmates also can get double credit for time served, and the training they receive can lead to professional firefighting careers.
Delta Camp inmate Kristopher Sandy, of Palm Springs, has four months left to serve for burglary; as the crew’s “sawyer,” he’s first to the flames. He’s enjoyed the job so much he’s considering a firefighting job after parole.
“It’s a rush to go out there and fight,” Sandy said. “We get to go to the incidents and the public doesn’t get to see what we see.”
Quinton Dickens, a 30-year-old from San Diego, is midway through a sentence for vehicular manslaughter. Working out of the Ben Lomond camp near Santa Cruz, Dickens serves as a “swamper,” the crew’s lead inmate. The job, he said, is light years beyond being locked up.
“It’s a much safer environment, and it teaches work ethic,” he said. “You feel more free, but you’re doing a good duty for the public.”
The minimum security camps lack fences; though inmates are counted more frequently, there have been “walk-aways” — last year, a Santa Clara County inmate was caught after escaping from Alder Conservation Camp in Klamath. The inmates know that if they leave, it could add two years or more to their sentences.
“What’s the purpose of walking away from here?” Nazario said. “I’ve got a debt to society to pay. This is something I’ve got to do.”