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California May Allow Inmate Firefighters With Violent Pasts

California officials want more prisoners fighting wildfires 0:26

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California officials are considering allowing inmates with violent backgrounds to work outside prison walls fighting wildfires, and the idea is generating concerns about public safety.

The state has the nation's largest and oldest inmate firefighting unit, with about 3,800 members who provide critical assistance to professional firefighters. That's down from about 4,400 in previous years, however, and so prison officials are looking for ways to add inmates.

Now, only minimum-security inmates with no history of violent crimes can participate. Starting next year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is proposing adding inmates convicted of violent offenses such as assaults and robberies, if their security classification level has been reduced after years of good behavior.

The changes are pending final approval within the Corrections Department.

The proposal comes at a time when the overall prison population is smaller and drought has created the potential for explosive wildfires like the ones that recently roared through the Sierra foothills and communities north of Napa, in northern California.

Mike Lopez, president of the union representing state firefighters who oversee inmates at fire scenes, supports a robust inmate program but worries about what the proposed changes could bring.

"Any acceptance of criminals with a violent background calls into question the security of our membership," he said, adding, "at what risk is CalFire willing to go to get those inmates?"

Image: Inmate Firefighters stand along Highway 20 during the Rocky Fire near Lower Lake, California
Inmate firefighters stand along Highway 20 during the Rocky Fire near Lower Lake, California on August 3, 2015. STEPHEN LAM / Reuters file

CalFire spokeswoman Janet Upton said her agency and corrections officials formed a committee this summer to consider how best to keep the firefighter program adequately staffed. She wouldn't comment on the proposed changes other than to say "nobody is interested in seeing this program go away."

Even using only nonviolent inmates has resulted in hundreds of assaults and batteries, along with weapons possessions, indecent exposures and other crimes among inmate firefighters in the last 10 years, according to data compiled by corrections officials and provided at the AP's request. Officials said the rate is much lower than in higher-security prisons.

Inmate firefighters are housed in 43 unfenced, minimum-security camps scattered across the state. They are guarded by a few correctional officers but while fighting fires are overseen only by unarmed CalFire captains who direct the inmates as they use hand tools to chew through brush and timberland to create firebreaks to stop advancing flames.

An average of nine inmates escape from the camps each year but since 2011 all but one has been recaptured.