Officials: Inmates with violent pasts have long fought fires

A new report revealed that about 1,400 of California's 3,700 inmate firefighters have previous convictions for violent offenses

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A state lawmaker and a union president are calling for investigations after California's corrections department revealed that about 1,400 of the state's 3,700 inmate firefighters have previous convictions for violent offenses.

Corrections officials had said for years that only nonviolent prisoners were allowed in the program.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber wants the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to now disclose the criminal histories and any acts of violence of inmates working in the unfenced, lightly guarded camps that house the firefighters.

"Thousands and thousands of people are affected and are vulnerable because of the continued criminal behavior of these inmates that CDCR knowingly put out in our communities," he said. He called for an oversight hearing by the Senate budget committee, where he is ranking Republican.

The department's revelation to The Associated Press on Wednesday shocked officials with the state'sfirefighting agency and the union that represents unarmed professional firefighters who oversee inmates on the fire lines.

"I'm very concerned this has been going on without our knowledge and inmates with violent backgrounds have been coming in without our notice," union president Mike Lopez said, calling for an investigation.

Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said she also was not aware, but added that the inmate firefighter program "is integral to our mission, especially as we face extreme fire conditions worsened by four consecutive years of drought."

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison said the department previously provided inaccurate information to the AP and other news outlets and on its website. He said inmates with violent backgrounds have been serving since at least the 1990s.

Callison blamed the misstatements on differing definitions of what constitutes a violent background. Although the penal code includes hundreds of offenses considered to be violent, he said prison officials have long considered inmates to be nonviolent if they have a minimum-security classification for good behavior and a significant length of time in prison without committing a violent act.

Arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang affiliates and those serving life sentences for murder and other crimes have always been excluded. But, for instance, someone convicted of robbery might be allowed to participate if no one was hurt and the inmate had years of good behavior behind bars, while someone convicted of stalking might be excluded even though state law does not define it as a violent crime, Callison said Wednesday.

As of Sept. 30, he said 1,441 of the 3,732 inmate firefighters — nearly 40 percent — had committed a crime deemed violent under the state's penal code. He said he is not sure why the department decided to include inmates with violent histories years ago.

Tim Williams, a firefighters' union representative who oversees inmates, said CalFire employees don't review the criminal records of the prisoners they supervise.

"I'm going to keep my guard up no matter what, because they're an inmate," he said. "I've got concerns working with inmates every day. But I treat them as a firefighter unless they cause problems, then they become an inmate. They're there for the same function I am, which is to save lives and protect property."

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