LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Nearly two dozen California prison inmates were set to be transferred Wednesday from a state detention center to a civilian firefighting camp.
KNX 1070’s Pete Demetriou the move is the first phase of a prison realignment program that aims to train nonviolent inmates as firefighters and reduce the prison population.
The transfer of 20 inmates will take place at Holton Conservation Camp in Sylmar as part of a joint venture between the Los Angeles County Fire and Sheriff’s departments, as well as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
The Sheriff’s Department has contracted with the CDCR to send up to 528 inmates to the fire camps by the end of 2014, according to Sgt. Andy Sandor.
Sandor told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO the Sheriff’s Department is drawing from a population of inmates who have been convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offense crimes to help staff the county’s fire camps.
“About 95 percent of the inmates we have in this program are drug offenders, and they go through an extensive medical examination and comprehensive criminal history background check,” Sandor said.
While the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has for decades assigned lower-level offenders to live and work in rural fire camps, that segment of the prison inmate population has fallen significantly since the Public Safety Realignment Plan (AB 109) took effect, according to Sheriff’s officials.
Inmates selected for the program undergo several weeks of arduous physical conditioning and strenuous work projects, including supervised three-to-six mile daily hikes in the hills and fire trails surrounding the 2600 acre Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.
The inmates then undergo an intensive two-week, 80-hour Fire Department training program encompassing fire behavior, fire line safety, fire line hazards and use of hand tools, as well as standards of behavior and professionalism.
Inmate Demetrius Barr said the physical training at Pitchess was a wake-up call.
“My very first hike, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, what did I sign up for, I don’t believe this,'” Barr said. “This is a good place to be, taught me a lot of skills that I can take with me when I get out, hopefully change my life.”
By working on a fire crew, inmates not only can earn an additional day of work credit off their remaining sentence, but they could even compete for a position with federal and state fire agencies who hire felons with experience working on inmate fire crews, including the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Forest Service and CALFIRE, according to Sandor.
“It’s a very small number of them, but they do take a few, and they only take the best,” he said.