Calif. inmate firefighter crews fuel controversy

Officials said that over the years, the prison system has continually placed more dangerous prisoners in the state's 41 fire camps


By Ryan Sabalow
Record Searchlight

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The chief lobbyist for California's prison guard union told lawmakers at a hearing Thursday at the Capitol he's worried more dangerous inmates might be placed in fire camps under a budget plan that will transfer thousands of prisoners from state to county custody.

Craig Brown of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association said that over the years, the prison system has continually placed more dangerous prisoners in the state's 41 fire camps because fewer lowrisk inmates are actually spending time behind bars.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezIn this file photo, inmates put out a fire near Lake Arrowhead, Calif. Officials expressed concern Thursday, saying the prison system has continually placed more dangerous prisoners in the state's 41 fire camps.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
In this file photo, inmates put out a fire near Lake Arrowhead, Calif. Officials expressed concern Thursday, saying the prison system has continually placed more dangerous prisoners in the state's 41 fire camps.

He said if the state follows through with a plan that will give county jails the option of shipping inmates to the camps, there's little incentive sheriffs will send their least dangerous or problematic offenders.

"They're not going to be sending us the good guys and a big check to go with them," Brown said.

Violent offenders
Brown's remarks came during a twohour informational forum organized by Sen. Doug LaMalfa, RRichvale, who called for a hearing this spring after reading an investigative report in the Record Searchlight detailing how at any time at least one in five of the 4,000 plus inmates at the state's conservation camps has been convicted of violent crimes.

Despite assurances from state prison officials that only nonviolent prisoners are placed on the fire crews, the newspaper's investigation revealed inmates walk away regularly from the unfenced, minimumsecurity camps. Twice in recent years, such escapees had violent encounters with police, one of them a fatal shooting involving a San Francisco police officer.

The only lawmakers to attend Thursday's hearing were LaMalfa and Sen. Joel Anderson, RSan Diego.

The state's plan to transfer thousands of lowrisk inmates to the counties to cut the state's budget worries north state public safety officials and LaMalfa, who asks: If violent inmates are already being placed in the camps, who's going to be on the fire line under light guard once the safest offenders are back in county custody?

At the hearing, prison and fire officials acknowledged that more than half of the inmates who currently staff the fire camps are those who would eventually be in county custody.

But, they said, the selection process that chooses inmates for camp placement won't change if the counties begin contracting with the fire camps to free up local jail space.

"The same criteria we use now will be transferred out to the counties," said Rich Subia, deputy director of adult institutions for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

State prison and fire officials also continued to insist their screening process stops the overwhelming majority of dangerous offenders from making it into the camps, which they say are almost universally agreed to be invaluable in rehabilitating inmates as well as providing the state with a cheap source of fire protection. The socalled prison "realignment" plan won't affect the camps until at least 2012, said Clare Frank, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's assistant deputy director who oversees the camps program.

Terri McDonald, director of adult institutions at CDCR, said the screening process is among the most "robust" in the nation's prisons. She said an inmate's behavior and criminal history are carefully weighed before a prisoner is placed in the camps. However, she acknowledged the occasional problem inmate occasionally slips through.

"The reality is this is a human business and humans misbehave," she said.

But the hearing also featured a speaker who described how in such "human business" at least one time had a very human cost.

Her voice breaking with emotion, Sandy Tuvera, the mother of the slain San Francisco police officer, Bryan Tuvera, recounted how her son was shot in the face and killed by camp escapee Marlon Ruff, 33, who walked away from Eel River Conservation Camp in Humboldt County in 2005.

After eluding capture for nearly two years, Ruff shot Tuvera after the officer chased him into a South San Francisco garage. Ruff shot and killed himself as Tuvera's backup arrived.

Ruff had been convicted of beating and robbing an armored car guard, as well as a slew of gunrelated felonies before being given camp placement after his final conviction. Tuvera said all the officials she spoke to after her son's death from the officer who arrested Ruff to his own defense attorney were stunned he was put in a camp.

"There was an obvious failure in the system," she said.

State funding concerns
Tuvera, who spoke at the hearing with a representative from the San Francisco Police Officers Association, urged lawmakers and prison officials to tighten their camp selection criteria. She asked for the state to require a committee review of each potential camp inmate. She also requested prison officials check first with the agency that arrested the inmate to make sure the inmate was indeed safe to be placed under light guard.

The hearing also featured testimony from Paul Smith, a representative with the Regional Council of Rural Counties, Tehama County District Attorney Gregg Cohen and Trinity County Supervisor Judy Pflueger. Each said that though they believe the camps system provides a valuable service for fireprone rural California, they're worried the state won't adequately fund rural counties to send the inmates to the camps.

It was a concern echoed by LaMalfa.

"The question will be: How reliable will the state be in funding local government?"

he said. McDonald said she couldn't discuss how much the payments would be since the final amounts are being reviewed by the state finance officials. Fireprone California has become increasingly reliant on the state's inmates for fire protection.

The inmates are the state's only "hand crews," firefighting teams that use hand tools and chain saws to cut lines around wildfires.

In 2009 alone, fire camp inmates worked 2.6 million combined hours fighting fires. Each year the inmates, who work for $1 an hour while on the fire line, save taxpayers more than $80 million, state prison officials say.

Frank, Cal Fire's assistant deputy director overseeing the camps program, said the camps also provide a benefit to the inmates that can't be quantified.

She said it's not uncommon after a fire for inmates to see signs thanking fire crews for saving their homes.

"That's maybe the first time in their lives they've felt that," she said.

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