Prisoners Fighting Fires

Prisoners Fighting Fires

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

The California prison system is stepping up to the plate by fighting fire with fire.  Yes, that’s right — they are saving taxpayers money and providing low-level offenders with valuable skills and purpose by putting them to work fighting wildfires. Another side benefit of this ingenious project is California’s prisons are emptying out because these inmates are earning earlier release dates and are not reoffending.

Demetrius Barr is one of the first Los Angeles County inmates to be granted the opportunity to leave his confined jail cell and enter a natural atmosphere of breathtaking landscapes and spacious campsites. Not only can Barr help save this precious land from the destruction of fire, but his own life can be salvaged from the unforgiving world of crack dealing.

Barr doesn’t get to enjoy this new type of freedom for nothing. He receives this privilege by maintaining his fitness and best behavior and being willing to fight thousand-degree flames. The best reward for fulfilling his commitment to the Pitches Detention Center, where he was trained, is earning good-time credits that will permit him to decrease his seven-year sentence by 35%. This would also ensure that Barr “has what it takes” when confronted with a challenge as significant as a raging forest fire. 

The general public would be surprised if they realized about 50% of California wildfire fighters are prisoners, and a few of them are incarcerated women. Capt. Jorge Santana, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) liaison who supervises the camps, confirms these inmates are dedicated to changing their lives while serving the public and are saving the state over $1 billion a year. Inmate firefighters are contributing a major positive impact on California’s financial and environmental well-being.

The firefighting program is giving Barr and other inmates a new chance to be productive citizens. Barr is being detained for his second drug dealing offense, which means this unique opportunity is preventing him from getting a third conviction that would be his third strike under California law and put him away for life.

Another optimistic feature of the firefighting camp vs. prison is the environment is too life-threatening for gang activity. Firefighting inmates cannot afford to turn against one another or lose trust in fellow crewmates because they might not survive the next fire.

Officials have discovered that in order for inmates to be reformed, they need to be broken down physically to build them up mentally. The lesson they need to learn is that it takes hard work to be successful and hard work pays off. Firefighting is an appropriate example because the work is difficult, hot, and monotonous.

W. David Ball, an assistant professor in criminal justice at the Santa Clara University School of Law, claims using dangerous prison labor as a form of rehabilitation is effective because when the risk of losing your life or being physically threatened is at stake, there is a tendency to alter one’s outlook on life.

When offenders are deprived of having control over their lives —- if someone else takes the reins and exposes them to work hard, transformation can take place. Congress knew what they were doing when they wrote the 13th Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. When the Amendment passed, they made an important addition —– except as a punishment for crime.

Prisoners working for their keep is not a new concept, but using work to rehabilitate criminals is. Leave it to the good old Quakers to come up with an innovative way to reform prisoners with work. They were the first to put inmates in solitary confinement to work, making handicrafts like wicker chairs, which were used to generate revenue for their keep.  

Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah have joined the bandwagon to start firefighting programs as well. Ideally, the rest of the nation will be influenced by seeing how this model of rehabilitation can financially benefit the prison system while giving prisoners meaningful job experience. 

A former L.A. County Sheriff reminds the graduating fire camp inmates at the county jail commencement that their work will have the potential to improve their lives and leave a legacy of good deeds as opposed to wrongdoings.   

At the end of the day, what it all boils down to is if society can trust non-violent offenders on the front line of fires with chainsaws and axes, should they still keep them locked up behind bars for years?