California Has Used Violent Felons to Fight Fires for Years, Despite Denials

Monday, October 19, 2015

Oh, now. This is embarrassing.

After an uneasy week of flip-flopping by the state over whether it would change longstanding policy and use inmates who are violent offenders, not just low-level felons, to fight fires, California prison officials admitted they have used them for years. A lot of them.

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) told the Los Angeles Times, “As of Sept. 30, it was 1,441 inmates out of a total of 3,732 in the fire camps. It’s actually a mixture of serious and violent crimes, but principally violent crimes.”

The department’s webpage for the Conservation (Fire) Camps, which it operates with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), does not mention anything about not using violent offenders, but it used to not long ago.

The Los Angeles Times used the Internet’s Wayback Machine to look at a month-old incarnation of the page and found this statement: “Only minimum custody inmates—both male and female—may participate in the Conservation Camps Program. To be eligible, they must be physically fit and have no history of violent crimes, as defined by the California Penal Code.”     

That’s not true. Callison told the Associated Press, which was burned by the earlier misstatements, it was a “thoroughly misleading statement.”

CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard explained the discrepancy.  “The confusion over the firefighters is over the term ‘violence,’ ” he said. “In the system we look at violence differently. Not all violent offenses represent violent behavior by the individual.”

Beard said the department was, indeed, looking at expanding the criteria for selecting inmates that already allows serious and violent offenders to participate based on a rating system that takes into account the particulars of the crime committed and how an inmate has behaved during incarceration.

The CDCR is scrambling to find eligible inmates for the training program after the courts ordered the state four years ago to reduce prison overcrowding by reducing the number of incarcerated low-level offenders. Inmates receive $1 an hour and time-served credit for the hard and dangerous work, a deal the state would be hard-pressed to match using a civilian workforce.

The inmates are also utilized in other emergencies, including floods and earthquakes, and work on conservation projects on public lands and local community services projects.

Cal Fire spokesperson Janet Upton told the Associated Press that her department did not know violent felons were working side by side with unarmed firefighters.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Changing the Story: California Says Convicts with Violent Felonies Have Always Fought Fires (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

California Officials Say Violent Inmates Have Long Fought Fires, Contradicting Previous Claims (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

Upon Review, the State Won’t Use Violent Offenders in Prison to Fight Fires (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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