Prison chief defends using inmates to fight fires

The corrections chief promised to mend relations with critics who fear the prisoners create a public safety danger

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's corrections chief is defending the state's use of inmates with violent pasts to fight drought-fueled wildfires, while promising to mend relations with critics who fear the prisoners create a public safety danger.

"This is not the time to do any retrenching with the fires we've been having — and there's no need to do any retrenching because there haven't been any problems," Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said.

A state senator and head of the union representing the state's professional firefighters are calling for investigations after the department revealed this week that about 1,400 of the state's 3,700 inmate firefightershave previous convictions for violent offenses. Corrections officials had said for years that only nonviolent prisoners were allowed in the program.

Beard said nothing has changed despite the disclosure.

"The kind of people we're putting out now are the kind of people we've been putting out for the last 10-15 years, and they've done well and I think have really helped the state of California in a difficult period of time," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview late Wednesday.

Department records provided to the AP show there has been violent behavior including assaults, batteries and riots in the lightly guarded camps that house firefighters, but officials said the rate is far less than in higher security prisons. Inmates periodically walk away from unfenced camps, but they are usually recaptured quickly.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber called for an oversight hearing by the Senate budget committee where he is the ranking Republican. He wants the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to disclose the criminal histories and any acts of violence by inmate firefighters.

Officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the union representing professionalfirefighters who oversee the inmates both said they were surprised by this week's disclosure. Union President Mike Lopez also called for an investigation and said his union will bring it up in labor talks.

Beard said he intends to explain that the department is now considering no changes other than letting inmates participate if they have up to seven years left to serve on their sentences, up from the current five years.

That's vital as the state tries to maintain the nation's oldest and largest inmate firefighting unit despite having fewer nonviolent inmates in state prisons, he said. The state now uses about 3,700 inmates to cut fire containment lines in remote areas, but that's down from about 4,400 in previous years.

Nearly 40 percent have committed a violent crime.

Amid adverse publicity, the department backed off this week from a proposal to expand the number of inmates who could qualify for the fire camps despite having been convicted of crimes that are deemed violent under the state penal code.

Arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang affiliates and those serving life sentences for murder and other crimes have always been excluded. But officials said that under current rules someone convicted of robbery, for instance, might be allowed to participate if no one was hurt and the inmate had years of good behavior behind bars.

Nielsen said that after talking with Beard on Thursday he remains unpersuaded that those inmates can safely be used. He objected to letting corrections employees decide whether a particular inmate should be allowed to participate based on the employees' interpretation of the seriousness and circumstances of a violent crime.

"It can't be as subjective as that. The criteria has to be a lot tighter and a lot tougher," Nielsen said. The need for firefighters "has to be weighed against the risk to society and the compromise of justice," he said.

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