California to close 8 inmate firefighter camps, including one in Crestline

21 October 2020

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USA – Orange-suited inmates fighting wildfires will be a little less common sight next fire season.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will be closing eight of its 43 conservation camps by the end of the year.

Half are in Northern California, and half are in Southern California, including the Pilot Rock Conservation Camp in the San Bernardino mountains and the Rainbow Conservation Camp south of Temecula in San Diego County.

Department head Kathleen Allison announced the decision in an Oct. 9 letter to staff. The camps are jointly operated by her department and Cal Fire.

“We could not be prouder of the incredibly dedicated conservation camp staff, the work performed, and the service to California in its time of need throughout the program’s 105-year history,” Allison’s letter reads, in part.

In addition to firefighting, camp workers do conservation work and learn job skills. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to make it easier for some of these inmates to get firefighting jobs after their release from prison.

The consolidation was first outlined in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2020-21 budget, according to the letter.

The staff will be moved out of the camps by the end of December.

That “will allow Cal Fire and CDCR to effectively consolidate resources into the remaining 35 conservation camps, so that they can be more efficient and better staffed for response to wildfires, other emergencies, and engagement in conservation-related work,” a department of corrections statement reads, in part.

The 69 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees at the eight camps being shut down will be absorbed into vacancies at other camps or facilities, according to the department. The 362 inmates at the camps, including 239 inmate firefighters, will also be transferred to other camps.

The announcement of the closures is not a surprise to Tim Edwards, an engineer with Cal Fire, and the president of Local 2881, which represents firefighters in and around Sacramento.

“The camp program has been dying for the last several years anyway, because of the release of lower-risk inmates,” he said.

California has been dramatically reducing its prison population for almost a decade. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce prison crowding, which had resulted in unconstitutionally poor health care for prisoners. In 2012, Assembly Bill 109 shifted thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails. According to the corrections department, in 2016, there were 3,710 inmates housed at the camps, compared to 1,780 in 2020.

As the least-dangerous inmates leave the system, they’re replaced on firefighting lines with inmates convicted of more serious crimes. And those inmates have been more likely to cause problems, according to Edwards.

“We’ve had confrontations with inmates and our captains and inmates just walking away from the line,” he said. “So it’s slowly been getting worse.”

This summer, California released almost 8,000 inmates from state prisons. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can spread rapidly in prisons, with deadly results.

“Now, with the releases going on again, there’s not enough low-risk inmates to operate those camps,” Edwards said. “And we definitely don’t want high-risk inmates in those camps.”

The number of inmate fire crews at conservation camps has shrunk from 162 statewide to 101, he said.

To offset this, the state has temporarily hired 21 additional firefighter crews, made up of job applicants who’ve already been vetted by Cal Fire.

It’s a good deal, according to Edwards. The firefighters don’t require the security and other expenses inmates do. And they’re qualified to do more than cut defensive lines, the inmate crews’ primary firefighting responsibility.

“You’re probably looking at $100,000 per inmate, while it’s about $50,000 for a paid firefighter if they worked the whole year,” he said. “And productivity wise? It’s absolutely better.”

Hiring more firefighters is something Edwards’ union has been pushing for “for quite some time.” But these 21 crews are only temporary, hired through an emergency declaration by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“Now we have to push the policy makers to continue the program,” Edwards said.

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