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California Fire Camps Key To Reducing Prison Overcrowding

Katie Orr
Capital Public Radio

Reducing overcrowding at California prisons is not easy. Generally, inmates must either be released or given more space, which is expensive. But there is a third option. Inmates can be sent to fire camps.  That's a cornerstone of Governor Jerry Brown's plan to reduce prison overcrowding in response to a federal court order.  State Government Reporter Katie Orr takes a closer look at what these camps entail.  

It’s a clear, hot day on top of Fowler Peak about an hour east of Stockton. The views are magnificent, mountain ranges and lakes stretch for miles. But the men here today are not focusing on the view. They’re focusing on becoming firefighters.

These men are all serving their sentences in state fire camps. The camps allow low-level offenders to complete their time outside of prison walls and earn good behavior credits more quickly. But there’s a catch. The inmates must train to work as hand and support crews to back up professional firefighters during wildfires. Once a year inmates on hand crews must pass a series of qualifying tests. After checking their tools, the men on Fowler Peak get a pep talk before heading out on a timed hike.

The state runs 42 adult camps, including three for women, mostly in cooperation with Cal Fire. They hold more than 4,100 inmates. Governor Jerry Brown wants to increase their ranks by 1250. It’s part of his court-ordered plan to reduce overcrowding in California prisons.

“Bring ‘em. We’d be happy to have them,” says Roy Evens, the Cal Fire Division Chief in charge of the Vallecito camp, an hour outside of Stockton. He says the camps could use the help. But those that come should not expect an easy ride. Evens says the days spent fighting fires can be brutal.

It starts early and ends rather late. It’s not uncommon for hand crews, during an initial attack, to be on the line for 36 hours,” says Evens.

That doesn’t faze 33-year-old inmate Daniel Palmer. He says being at the camp is hard, but it’s better than the alternative.  

Being incarcerated, I spent a lot of time just on the yard, just wasting time. Here we have grade projects when we don’t have fires, where we can go out and do things for the community. You know, make the world a better place while paying our debt to society,” says Palmer.

He admits, sometime the people he’s helping don’t know how to react.

Some people look at you and don’t know what to think about you. They know you’ve done some crime. They don’t know what it is. So some people are a little skittish. Other people, I think, admire the fact that we’re doing something with our time,” says Palmer.” We’re not just sitting on a bunk eating up tax dollars, you know?”

In fact, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the program actually saves tax dollars, about $80 million a year. That’s because crews get paid $1 an hour when they’re fighting fires, just a fraction of what professional firefighters make. And when they’re not on the fire lines, the crews work in the community doing things like maintaining trails, picking up trash and doing conservation projects.

At 53, inmate Brian Meehan says the camp has been physically challenging for him. But he says the work has been satisfying, and the experiences will stay with him.

“I’ve made a few mistakes in my life, that’s why I’m here. But I think coming to camp has changed my attitude of the world,” says Meehan.

At Fowler Peak, the first group of inmates has completed the hike and has moved onto the brush clearing exercise. Two men attack a dense pocket of bushes with chainsaws while others follow behind with pick axes and rakes, clearing a fire break. They move with speed and precision, every man knowing his exact role.  It’s grueling work, and after the day is done, the men will find out whether they’ve done it well enough to serve their sentences while also serving California during the busy fire season.