While many on the left have celebrated California’s push to legalize marijuana as a victory for a progressive, harm-reduction approach to combating addiction and crime, the pullback in the number of low-level prisoners entering the state’s penal system is leaving the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Court mandates to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons – combined with the legalization of marijuana, the most commonly used drug in America (aside from alcohol, of course) – have led to a sharp drop in the number of prisoners housed at state facilities in recent years. Interestingly, one byproduct of this trend is it’s creating headaches for the state officials who are responsible for coordinating the emergency wildfire response just as California Gov. Jerry Brown is warning that the severe fires witnessed this year – the most destructive in the state’s history – could become the new status quo.
To wit, since 2008, the number of prisoner-firemen has fallen 13%.
As the Atlantic reports, California has relied on inmates to help combat its annual wildfires since World War II, when a paucity of able-bodied men due to the war effort forced the state to turn to the penal system for help. More than 1,700 convicted felons fought on the front lines of the destructive wildfires that raged across Northern California in October.
While communities from Sonoma to Mendocino evacuated in the firestorm’s path, these inmates worked shifts of up to 72 straight hours to contain the blaze and protect the property residents left behind, clearing brush and other potential fuel and digging containment lines often just feet away from the flames. Hundreds more are on the fire line now, combatting the inferno spreading across Southern California.
But over the course of the last decade, their ranks have begun to thin. As drought and heat have fueled some of the worst fires in California’s history, the state has faced a court mandate to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. State officials, caught between an increasing risk of wildfires and a decreasing number of prisoners eligible to fight them, have striven to safeguard the valuable labor inmates provide by scrambling to recruit more of them to join the force. Still, these efforts have been limited by the courts, public opinion, and how far corrections officials and elected leaders have been willing to go…
With dry conditions expected to persist for the foreseeable future, California will need to adjust to this new reality. Meanwhile, the fate of the inmate-firefighting program lies in the balance between two trends: the increasing need for cheap labor, and the pending decline in incarceration.
The push to reduce overcrowding is a reaction to the rising incarceration rates of the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton declared gangsters and criminals “superpredators” and authorized stiff penalties for relatively minor drug offenses.
For inmates, the reduction in state prison populations that first nudged that balance was long overdue. In the 1990s and 2000s, increasingly severe overcrowding in California prisons compromised medical services for prisoners and led to roughly one preventable death each week. A federal court ruled in 2009 that the inadequate health care violated the Eighth Amendment’s embargo against cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by just shy of 27 percent – a cut of nearly 40,000 prisoners at the time of the ruling. California appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court upheld it in May 2011.
As one might expect, the push to reduce overcrowding has had the greatest impact on the population of inmates in minimum security prisons. Typically, state officials prefer to recruit minimum security inmates who are already serving relatively light sentences and thus have the most incentive to cooperate and not cause problems (like disappearing into the wilderness).
Also, state guidelines prohibit the recruitment of certain violent criminals and, of course, sex offenders.
The pool of potential recruits was limited long before the courts’ mandate. It comprises only inmates who earn a minimum-custody status through good behavior behind bars and excludes arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang affiliates, and those serving life sentences. To join the squad, inmates must meet high physical standards and complete a demanding course of training. They also have to volunteer.
“But,” cautioned David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, “you have to understand the uniquely coercive prison environment, where few things are clearly voluntary.” In the eyes of criminal-justice reformers, corrections officials recruit inmates under duress. “In light of the vast power inequality between prisoners and those who employ them,” Fathi continued, “there is a real potential for exploitation and abuse."
Aside from the shrinking inmate population, a handful of inmate deaths this year while battling the NorCal wildfires is causing some low-level offenders to reconsider whether the incentives being offered by the state – credit toward parole, and a generous wage (at least by prison standards) – are really worth the risks.
Many inmates join the force to escape unpalatable prison conditions. In doing so they take on great personal risk, performing tasks that put them in greater danger than most of their civilian counterparts, who work farther from the flames driving water trucks and flying helicopters, among other activities. By contrast, inmates are often the first line of defense against fires’ spread, as they’re trained specifically to cut firebreaks—trenches or other spaces cleared of combustible material—to stop or redirect advancing flames. The work can be fatal: So far this year, two inmates have died in the line of duty, along with one civilian wildland-firefighter. The first, 26-year-old Matthew Beck, was crushed by a falling tree; the second, 22-year-old Frank Anaya, was fatally wounded by a chainsaw.
“Obviously this is not something that everyone is willing to volunteer for,” said Bill Sessa, a CDCR spokesman. “We’ve always been limited by the number of inmates who were willing to volunteer for the project.” Even when state prisons were at their most crowded, the camps where inmate firefighters live weren’t filled to capacity. And as the pool of qualified prisoners has contracted, he said, corrections officials have had to “work harder now than we did before to bring the camp to the inmates’ attention."
In an effort to entice more recruits to join up, state officials are trying to emphasize the benefits of volunteering to fight the blazes: Volunteer firefighters can receive visits from family out in the open, instead of behind a thick pane of glass. It also allows them to escape the confines of the prison – for a brief time at least.
But with legal marijuana rapidly draining the ranks of low level offenders, a sizable shortfall will likely to persist in the years to come.
And after the death and devastation wrought by this year’s fires, many inmates have good reason to reconsider.
After all, you can’t enjoy visits with family and friends when you’re dead.