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8 inmate fire camps to close this year

The change reflects a steep decline in California’s prison population since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is projected to save the state about $14.7 million per year


Inmate firefighters prepare to work against the River Fire in Salinas, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced last week that eight inmate fire camps will be closing this year.

AP Photo/Noah Berger

By Wes Venteicher and Ryan Sabalow
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s corrections department is following through on a plan to close eight inmate firefighting camps, reflecting a steep decline in the state’s inmate population since the coronavirus outbreak.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told employees Friday it plans to close four camps in the northern part of the state and four in the south by Dec. 31. The change will reduce the number of the camps to 35. The closures, outlined in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May budget proposal, are projected to save $7.4 million this fiscal year and $14.7 million per year moving forward.

The closure reflects a massive decline in inmate numbers over the decade, and raises questions about how the state plans to fight fires without as many inmates that who for decades been a key source of labor to fight California’s wildfires.

There were 92,622 incarcerated people in California’s prisons as of last week, a reduction of 21,696 since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March, according to the most recent data from the corrections department. The state has expanded early release for low-level offenders to help reduce populations.

State officials have been trying to reduce the size of the prison population by first diverting lower-level offenders to county custody or releasing them outright, cutting into the number of inmates with less serious felony offenses that are eligible to be included in the fire camp system.

The camps accommodate up to 4,234 inmates, but as of late last month, there were only 1,812 inmates at the camps. That’s down from 2,800 inmates in conservation camps last year. Only inmates with less serious felony offenses are allowed to participate in the fire camps. Similar guidelines are used in the state’s early release decisions.

About 360 inmates are stationed at the eight camps targeted for closure, and have “been operating at well below capacity for some time,” according to corrections department data. Sixty-nine corrections department employees work at the camps.

Corrections department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an emailed statement that all staff and inmates from the eight camps will be reassigned.

“The depopulation will allow Cal Fire and CDCR to effectively consolidate resources into the remaining 35 conservation camps, so that they can be more efficient and better staffed for response to wildfires, other emergencies, and engagement in conservation-related work,” Simas said in the statement.

Many of the camps are located in remote areas where fires are most likely to break out. Inmate “hand crews,” equipped with chainsaws and tools to cut fire lines, have helped battle most of the major fires that have burned 4 million acres in California this year -- a modern record.

But the shortage of inmate fire fighting labor was keenly felt this summer, prompting the Newsom administration to scramble to find bulldozer operators and out-of-state firefighters to make up for fewer inmates. Teams that normally clear brush were brought on as replacements.

When fires aren’t burning, inmates are assigned forest restoration work, they fill sandbags at floods and they clean up along highways, among other duties.

The state’s inmate “conservation camp” program has become controversial as the nation debates criminal justice reforms.

Some critics call them a form of slave labor since the inmates earn just dollars a day doing dangerous work. They earn between $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when they’re on a fire, and their work reduces their sentences.

Supporters say the inmates are learning valuable life and job skills on the fire lines, and many inmates would rather be working off their sentences outdoors and helping communities rather than staying locked in cells.

“We know this will be a challenging transition, and will work hard to ensure a smooth process for everyone impacted, including placing employees into like positions at other facilities,” corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison said in the memo to employees.

The news follows the department’s Sept. 25 announcement that it will close Deuel Vocational Institution, a state prison in Tracy, in September of next year. Newsom has said he wants to close two state prisons and enhance the state’s focus on rehabilitation.

The affected conservation camps are listed on the corrections department’s website:

Northern region:

-- Chamberlain Creek Conservation Camp, Fort Bragg, Mendocino County

-- Devil’s Garden Conservation Camp, Alturas, Modoc County

-- High Rock Conservation Camp, Weott, Humboldt County

-- Valley View Conservation Camp, Elk Creek, Glenn County

Southern region:

-- Baseline Conservation Camp, Jamestown, Tuolumne County

-- McCain Valley Conservation Camp, Boulevard, County

-- Pilot Rock Conservation Camp, Crestline, San Bernardino County

-- Rainbow Conservation Camp, Fallbrook, San Diego County


(c)2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)