OAKLAND, Calif. - California state prison inmates who work on the fire lines are waging a battle against the state's corrections department, which they say has overlooked their good works and is releasing violent offenders more frequently than inmates providing the crucial firefighting services.
“They play a critical role," said CalFire Deputy Chief Nick Schuler. "Not only the extinguishment of fires but the work that they do when fires aren’t occurring throughout the state.”
Inmates who are low-security risks and nearing the end of their sentences can volunteer for the program that gets them the same training as professional firefighters.
Upon completion, inmate firefighters are placed in one of 43 conservation camps where they help clear brush, maintain parks, and work on projects in the community until they’re called to fight fires.
"It’s amazing to see the work production they can do, the pride in what they do and the value they bring," Schuler said.
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by releasing 8,000 non-violent prisoners with a year or less left to serve. Many of the inmates in fire camps met that criteria, but were not released.
Attorney Maryann Cazzell wrote Newsom and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Ralph Diaz accusing the state of delaying the release of inmates while letting high-security level inmates out, including some convicted of murder and arson.
"They have an incentive to keep them there because they get paid for fulfilling this contract that they have with CalFire to provide firefighters," Cazzell said.
The state responded in a letter laying out the guidelines and said the department will identify those who are eligible for early release.
“It’s kind of like brushing off the mosquito that’s on your arm," Cazzell said. "It’s kind of like, ‘Yeah, we’ll deal with it. Your people have to wait.’”
CDCR did tell KTVU roughly 330 inmate firefighters were released but could not break down how many were natural releases versus expedited ones.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, most inmates received 12 weeks off their sentences for good behavior. This upset many fire camp inmates who said they deserve more credit for the jobs they do out in the community.
“It’s not right," said an inmate who didn’t want to provide his name. "Not only are we not a risk to the community, but we’re an asset. We should be the first ones released.”
Inmate firefighters get two-days credit off their sentence for every day they’re working and are paid up to $5 a day. It’s estimated they save the state tens of millions of dollars a year.
“We almost died twice out there not too long ago," said one inmate firefighter. "We’re really putting our lives on the line out here.”
CDCR said upon release, many inmates get jobs with CalFire, the U.S. Forest Service and the state’s hot shot crews.
It’s a career path many inmates said they’d apply for immediately, if they’d get let out now, amid an early fire season and a pandemic.
“There is a sense of feeling like we’ve been forgotten about," one inmate firefighter said. "We’re doing our job for our state while we’re seeing other people in the prison being released. It doesn’t make you feel very good.”