Every prison institution in California has a general product that they specialize in producing—some put out soap, others ironworks, Folsom State Prison puts out license plates while Correction Training Facility produces shoes and clothing. Sierra Conservation Center (SCC)—a minimum to medium custody state prison—yields human capital.
Qualifying inmates are taught the ins and outs of one of the most well-respected and treasured occupations in American culture: the firefighter.
Particularly in our post-9/11 society, firefighters are looked up to as American heroes, selfless defenders of the people; to be one means to be willing to put your ass on the line for a community of people that you may not know and may never meet. You take on the responsibilities associated with preventing floods, fighting fires, and sandbagging mudslides that would otherwise ruin peoples’ houses and the surrounding environment. The program ends up turning social outcasts into individuals capable of heroic deeds.
As inmates initially cross that daunting threshold into the cold world of incarceration they can harbor feelings of social alienation, depression, anger, and rejection. Yet when given the opportunity to progress in an institutional program that goes beyond merely being assigned monotonous tasks that constantly remind the inmates of their poor behaviors, the opportunity to significantly diminish the recidivism rate and gain a sense of personal merit arises.
Naturally, the ultimate goal of the SCC’s firefighter program is to equip inmates with not only vocational skills and firefighting certificates, but, more importantly, with a sturdy work ethic and an internal sense of self-respect.
“We are in a partnership with CAL FIRE, the California Fire Department, and what we do here at Sierra is we get the low custody inmates, we screen them to make sure they have the right custody level, and once they pass that we go ahead and start a series of training programs,” SCC Warden Frank Chavez explained.
At the Sierra Conservation Center, CAL FIRE teaches prisoners how to safely and effectively fight fires by taking two consecutive training courses; the Physical Fitness Training (PFT) and the Firefighter Training (FFT) programs. Once they finish both the PFT and the FFT, inmates are put on a waiting list to get admitted into one of the 19 fire camps that are “strategically located in all of the dry woodlands so that they can be easily deployed to those areas most susceptible to wildfires,” Warden Chavez noted.
“Once they complete [PFT] and pass into the [FFT] facet of the program, we turn them over to CAL FIRE captains who actually take them out and train them to fight wildfires. That’s where they actually learn how to cut fire lines, fire behavior, fire safety, how to use hand tools, how to put their safety gear on—helmets, packs, bunker gear—they learn about keeping themselves hydrated, acclimating themselves to the fire ground and heat, dealing with safety hazards like snags, working with power lines, getting on and off the fire bus, etc…It’s a lot of information to learn, but our main focus is on safety.”
The warden and countless correctional officers have testified to the spectrum of change they’ve seen in a sizable chunk of inmates, especially ones who truly immerse themselves in the program. On day one they’re scared to death, they don’t know what to expect, but just a few days into it they gain a sense of self-respect and confidence that the staff and fire captains hope will carry through to the outside world as inmates make that difficult shift back into the society. At that point, they are ready for camp.
These fire camps are the final step for inmates admitted into the SCC, with the closest camp—the Baselines camp—being just three miles down a dusty road that winds around the parched land surrounding the SCC facility. “It’s beautiful out here,” one easygoing guard said, whimsically surveying the jagged, chalky rocks and arid vegetation scattered throughout the sun-drenched dustbowl.
The camp is a mini-village of sorts that looks more like a Christian summer camp or a wilderness retreat than labor headquarters for incarcerated criminals. With its lack of walls and well-landscaped central lawn, around which six cottage-like dormitories, a cafeteria, an inmate-run trading post and a central building for faculty, counseling and general activities, it even feels like a retreat.
Although the firefighter system—both the SCC’s training programs and the fire camps—is a major benefit to the actual rehabilitation of inmates, it is by no means foolproof. One prisoner in the bustling SCC jail yard, Paul, a former camp inmate who fell back into his drug habits after being paroled a couple years ago, has been working on getting back to one of the fire camps, this time with a more determined frame of mind bent on building that crucial solid foundation.
“The reason I feel that I didn’t succeed the first time is I didn’t have any credentials, I didn’t have anything under my belt to help me out there in society,” Paul explained, “This time I got my GED, I got my masonry certificate, then after that I actually had a friend in the PFT introduce me to the coach. Ever since I’ve been doing everything the prison will give me to get me ready to go back out there and excel.”
Likewise, Philip Kirkpatrick is serving his second term, this time making sure to take advantage of what the fire camp has to offer, since an inmate can only truly be rehabilitated if they strive to do so by participating in programs such as the PFT, FFT and fire camps. “I’m going to exhaust all my avenues. Last time I had a plan but it was just Plan A, and when Plan A failed [prison] is where I came back to, so I know now that I have to have a Plan A, a Plan B, I’ve got to go through the whole damn alphabet and backwards again. I’ve got to be prepare for everything, because I got two strikes and I know that the way that I used to think I’m not completely perfect and its easy for people in my situation to just revert back to their old behavior, so, I’ve just got to be patient and humble—it is what it is, you know?”
One noticeable difference in these inmate firefighters is that they have a tremendous deal of respect for what they’re doing; the job gives them a sense that they’re accomplishing something, not only for themselves, but for their families and the society in general.
Whether they are doing military-style calisthenics in the prison yard for their PFT or gearing-up in their bunker gear (typical firefighter suits) for a field day in the FFT—the second program inmates must complete before being sent to one of those 19 fire camps strewn across the state—the inmates looked and acted more hopeful and enthusiastic about themselves, what they are doing and what they plan to do when they get out.
“It’s very positive, it’s like having a family to count on,” Paul says of the firefighting experience. “The model for PFT is start together and finish together, so we try not to leave anyone behind. I’ve done PFT, and I’ve been a firefighter before. It’s a good program, the PFT, the FFT and especially the fire camps.”
“A giant tree was on the verge of falling and there were a lot of homes where it was leaning towards, and seeing as the redwood firefighters there were kind of busy, our crew had some saws and cut it down,” Paul said while chronicling his most memorable experience as a firefighter thus far with a satisfied grin inching across his face, “Some people were asking whether we were going to be able to handle the tree, us being inmates and all, and our captain answered him saying that these are the best saw men I got, which was a real compliment. My buddy was the first saw and I was the second saw, we took the largest saw we had and they told us it had to drop it a certain way or else it would collapse the neighboring roofs, but we put it where he wanted it and all the people started clapping and thanking us and offering to bring us food—I’ve never felt that before, it felt good. Yah, I’ll never forget that one.”
While the fire fighting skills do prove worthwhile in terms of providing inmates with a concrete set of skills meant to establish a practical gateway to a multitude of occupations and career paths, it seems to be the gradual improvement and reinforcement of the inmates’ behavior that can lead to a greater disposition towards a sound state of mental and emotional health that truly attests to the program’s benefit. Inmates like Paul and Patrick are living examples of the programs potential to completely revamp an inmate’s attitude in a positive and constructive direction. Without this program, there would be no foundation of enthusiasm, dedication, solidarity and purpose for inmates.
Though there have been cases where former inmates have gotten jobs with CAL FIRE, becoming a full-time, salaried firefighter is hard work and not everyone who is involved in the SCC training successfully lands a job once they are released—it is an incredibly competitive field. But even if they don’t become firefighters, giving them the chance to get out there and have the structure of a normal workday, just as they would out in the real world, plays a huge part in the process. A lot of these guys have struggled to or have never held consistent job; they have never had that structure and sense of contribution to society. The program is not a novelty to them as they try to effectively become individuals who contribute to society in a positive manner.
Philip has been the lead clerk manning the trade post for a significant portion of his term in fire camp. Recalling his past, Philip said, “I’ve been down a little over 5 years now, I’ve got 2 left. I started living my term in a cell in general population for roughly 3 years, working hard to get to fire camp since I knew that was the best shot that I had at actually recovering, because if I confine myself to a box for the 7 years that I’m incarcerated, I’m not going to know how to be around people, I’m not going to know how to interact, not going to know how to function within society. Whereas now, I’ve been here 13 months and 11 months of it I’ve been a clerk. I have a job that is extremely rewarding, and it’s a job—I’m on call 24 hours a day, seven day a week, no days off, I have a lot of responsibilities.”
For Philip, and many of the other inmates, those responsibilities mean all the difference as they prepare for reintegration.
“I’m not used to having responsibilities, I’m used to just going and taking something from somebody and doing what I do, you now what I mean; so it’s very rewarding,” Philip commented. “Having this clerk job and being in this whole program, it’s helped me sharpen my skills with other people and gain patience, because I have to go out there into society and actually contribute in a positive way. To a certain extent, I feel like I’m almost free,” he blithely declared.
Every prison in the state has a product that is put out as a means of creating profitable revenue, with the Sierra Conservation Center’s main product being firefighters. The whole idea of a general product is to make use of the cheap labor that inmates provide so that the prisons’ can maintain the institution while they serve time; yet while producing an abundance of slacks and undershirts may prove profitable for the state and the prison, that task is menial and provides little to no sense of fulfillment and purpose—feelings that are central to successful rehabilitation.
The SCC training facility and the various fire camps that turn criminals into empathetic heroes work to achieve both means, renewing the inmates sense of worth and value in society while providing cheap labor to prevent costly and potentially life threatening wildfires, all at a fraction of the standard market value of such labor.
This program is a two-for-one, benefiting both the taxpayers and prison inmates; it provides structure for the inmates and financial benefits for taxpayers. You can have 20 outside guys working for CAL FIRE that are getting paid big money for fighting fires and other natural disasters, or you can get an inmate fire crew at almost the exact same cost as just one of those non-inmate firefighters. Taking this into account, inmates can give back to the community financially while simultaneously building their self-confidence and determination. Whether or not inmates make use of the chances they are offered for uplifting personal change and education doesn’t determine whether this program is advantageous for taxpayers; if done properly, SCC inmates all have the opportunity to better themselves and the society they’ve caused harm upon, but whether or not they truly follow through with what they’ve learned as they immerse themselves back into the real world is up to them. The massive support provided by these inmates alone supplies some taxpayers with community support while giving California the environmental aid it so desperately needs.
Prisoners in fire camps also get to escape the exasperating jail yard drama and prison politics. The number one complaint among inmates outside the fire programs is unanimously the prison politics. The term ‘prison politics’ is basically an umbrella term that stands for everything vile and wrong about the traditional prison set-up: racism and anticipated segregation, gang affairs, confrontations and feuds, drab surroundings, highly-strict guards, drug temptations, lack of positive communication and unsettling living spaces, among other things.
Baseline camp is void of these politics, especially the race factor; some of the racial elements inside prison involve the expectation for prisoners to segregate themselves by race or gang affiliation. When you get out to the fire line you don’t see that—the group consists purely of firefighters, partners who all depend on each other to survive some of the dangerous situations they face. That sense of camaraderie is often the driving force behind a prisoner’s rehabilitation; without that group bond, prisoners can become isolated and cut-off from reality, quite possibly the antithesis of correctional rehabilitation.
“Once you get to camp you’ve find yourself looking beyond the hassles of prison politics because you are out there on the fires, and you’ve got to look out for each other,” Paul stated, “I really enjoyed the crew that I was on because we were all brothers. We worked together, we ate together, we slept together, you know what I mean? It was very positive. You get the sense of being a part of something, rather than just being locked up in a cell all by yourself.”
Philip harbors a similar outlook, though he carries his efforts into the classroom; in fact, he’s part of a group of camp inmates who really enjoy doing what is called the juvenile diversion program, in which a few inmates who have served multiple terms go out to continuation schools and elementary schools during red ribbon week (drug awareness week) to talk about the poor choices that they made in their life. Some of them, like Philip, have expressed interest in possibly taking up a career in youth counseling as a way of veering troubled kids back in the right direction. The campers who are part of the diversion program are all success stories just waiting to jump back into society with a level-head on their shoulders; they have come to terms with the revolving door of crime and punishment they got caught up in, realized what they’ve done and want to try to make a difference by stopping kids from running down the same decrepit path they and are paying their debts for.
“It’s so rewarding being a part of the community betterment and diversion programs, going to classrooms and talking to kids, it feels good to finally be able to give back to the community because the community that we go to is where I caught my cases, where I’ve hurt so many people, and so it feels really good to finally be able to give back. Even though I have a group of roughly 8 to 10 kids, just getting to one of them and having a positive impact on one of those kids, that’s all I care about,” says Philip.
Another camper heavily involved in the diversion program, Resnick is a calm and contented man of 48 years who has been in the penal system since he hit adulthood at age 18. He resides at the Baseline camp and acts as one of the key facilitators who goes out and talks to 8th graders and high school students about the choices one makes in life, specifically about how he made his mistakes, using those negative experiences to influence these kids not to make the same mistakes that he made.
Probably the most powerful aspect of the camps here is the genuine sense that everyone who works in the camps has a sense of purpose, whether it is the guy in the laundry room washing the fire gear when they have a big training event and all of the inmate fire crews come in and camp out there—it’s like a little city in itself. The guy in the laundry, the guy making the meals, the mechanics, it’s amazing to see what a vast production these camps put on and, moreover, how everyone is so willing to jump in and help.
That communication and teamwork, alongside the boost in self-assurance that manifests from their philanthropic contributions, has the power to turn even the most downtrodden and apathetic of inmates into American heroes. Programs such as these should be developed into a staple for American prisons, providing inmates with a means of gaining the inner strength and balance necessary for making that treacherous progression back into society.