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California's inmate Conservation Camps provide manpower in wildfire fights

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REDDING, Calif. - Bill Sessa has been a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for a decade and a half, and he's seen the eyebrows raised over the idea of inmates working outside of prison to fight fires.

"A good 50 percent of the state's firefighting ability are inmates," Sessa said. "It's been working for decades, for both taxpayers as well as for inmates."

The Conservation Camps, also known as Fire Camps, have been around in California since the 1940's. The program has evolved over the decades to the one that trains some 4,000 state prisoners today, staged in 43 camps throughout the state, supporting the work done by CAL FIRE professionals as well as performing daily conservation duties in mostly rural areas.

"They have breakfast, they leave the camp early in the morning, and if they're not on the line, they're either cutting a trail for a conservation group," Sessa said. "They may be clearing brush for fire prevention. They might even be clearing dead trees and doing other large projects to reduce the fuel that can come up in the fire season."

The program isn't without scrutiny. State Senator Jim Nielsen has been vocal in his opposition to having convicted criminals working in the public and housed outside of prisons. And Sessa agrees these are not inmates who have committed petty crimes. If they are serving in state prison, they have committed what the law defines as a serious threat or violent felony.

"That does not mean, however, that the inmates in the fire camp behave violently," Sessa said. "In fact, we screen out every inmate that we think might be a behavior problem. In all of the years that we've had the conservation program, we have never had a problem with a fire crew in the community."

Sessa adds that none in the program are serving life sentences, have been convicted of murder, or arson, or are sex offenders.

That's not to say there haven't been incidents where inmates have tried to run, but Sessa said in every instance they have been recaptured.

The jobs themselves are grueling, including 24-hour shifts, often in the backcountry, with weeks at a time spent in remote camps. The work is done under the watchful eye of CAL FIRE professionals in the field, and the inmates are under the supervision of correctional officers while in the camp. Sessa says most inmates realize how lucky they are to work off part of their sentence outside of prison walls.

"This is not a vocational program," Sessa said. "The inmates do not come into this program expecting to become firefighters. But what they learn is a lot of life skills. Many of them have never had a job before. Some of them may not have ever been responsible for getting a job done on time. Many of them have never had other people to rely on them. So those kinds of life skills help those inmates when they leave prison."

One number seems to show the success of the program: recidivism. According to Sessa, the rate of return to prison is 10 percent lower among those who have completed stints in the conservation camps.

"They may have a variety of reasons for volunteering," Sessa said. "The camp environment is different from being inside an electric fence. They eat better. They get paid a little more than other inmates do so that they can maybe have money to help themselves on parole."

"Many of them also use that money to pay victim restitution if the court has ordered it. But ultimately, what the inmates that I've talked to come to understand, they all believe that they are grateful for the opportunity to do a public service, to pay the community back for the crime that they committed." Sessa continued.

For more information about the program, including a list of camp locations in California, visit the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's website.

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