California officials admit they misled the public about violent inmates working on fire crews

cdcr logoIn a stunning admission Wednesday, the California Department of Corrections admitted that they misled the public for years when they said violent offenders in prison were not allowed to work on inmate wildland firefighting crews.

After the Associated Press ran a story on October 12 saying the CDC was considering allowing inmates to serve on fire crews even if they were convicted of violent offenses such as assaults and robberies, there was considerable criticism. Later in the day, according to the Washington Post, the proposal was scrapped while it was still in a final review stage.

On Wednesday, October 14, the Associated Press published a followup story revealing that the CDC had been allowing violent offenders to work on fire crews since at least the 1990s. According to the AP, corrections officials revealed that about 1,400 of the state’s 3,700 inmate firefighters have previous convictions for violent offenses.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison said a statement on the department’s website that participating inmates must have no history of violent crimes under California’s penal code “was a thoroughly misleading statement.”

That statement has now been scrubbed from the CDC’s website, but thanks to the Way Back Machine we were able to find a version of the page saved on September 5, 2015:

CDC violent inmate firefighters 9-5-2015
A screen grab from the CDC’s web site from September 5, 2015. We highlighted the section that has been scrubbed from the website. (click to enlarge)
The CDC has been struggling to find ways to maintain an adequate number of inmates on the fire crews after a Supreme Court decision ordered the state to reduce the number of prisoners due to over crowding. Many state-incarcerated inmates are being moved to county jails.

California inmate fire crews are supervised on the fireline by CAL FIRE Captains, but corrections officials maintain contact with them at the incident base.

I worked as a federal firefighter in California throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and frequently worked, if not alongside, near inmates. They were just a fact of life. I was under the impression then that they had not been convicted of violent crimes. But if I were there now, knowing that about 38 percent of them are violent offenders, I would have a different opinion about working with them, eating with them, and sleeping on the ground in the same camp with them. And I can’t even imagine what a female firefighter in California must be thinking about now, after the state admitted they have been lying for years about the composition of their crews.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

8 thoughts on “California officials admit they misled the public about violent inmates working on fire crews”

  1. Thanks Bill. This has been a long confirmed fact from CAL FIRE captains running the crews and CDCR officers in the field. Amazingly, every time when officially asked, they always went back to the statement that you highlighted.

  2. My reaction is a little different. Clearly, the California Department of Corrections shouldn’t have lied about the composition of its crews. But people can be rehabilitated — even people who have committed violent crimes.

    These inmates signed up and trained for a tough job. They are out there doing the same job as any other firefighter. They are supervised, guarded, and dressed in bright orange clothing that marks them as inmates. They eat at separate tables and sleep in separate marked-out areas. I’d rather have them out in the world in that kind of situation, learning a skill that will make them employable when they’ve served their time than moudering away in prison. And I’m a female who has been at lots of ICPs with prison crews.

    Seeing how hard fire crews work — and having the chance to work alongside these crews — could be a life-changing event for some of these inmates.

  3. There is no excuse for lying to the public. People responsible should be fired…..but they won’t be.

  4. A minor correction to your comment: Sandra Bachman was one of the 2 Corrections Officers assigned with the Perryville Crew. it was her first-ever fire. Dave LaTour was assigned as the Crew Leader, an experienced wildland firefighter.

  5. A major correction to your comment.

    The Corrections Officer/Crew Boss Larry Terra had ABANDONED the Perryville Crew on June 26, 1990, took the ONLY radio and actually drove to a nearby store to get soda and cigarettes. He neither called to notify a supervisor that he had done this nor did he advise Sandra Bachman.
    Dave LaTour then became the Crew Representative at the time and filed in for the missing Crew Boss Terra.

    Investigators knew within three days, that Terra was NOT with the Perryville Crew, but concluded that ‘his absence would have had no significant outcome’ on what occurred [fatalities]. Really?

    This was NOT discussed and/or addressed in the Accident Investigation Report. Instead, it was reported that “Crew Boss Larry Terra took Crew Member Fred Hill and went to get water at the Control Road leaving Assistant Crew Boss Sandra Bachman line in charge with Crew Representative Dave LaTour. Terra sent the water up the line on an all-terrain-vehicle and began walking back with Hill.” Totally incorrect and untruthful!

    There was a local District timber employee on an ATV that had been delivering water up and down the line in Walk Moore Canyon that day, NOT Larry Terra.

  6. Hyperbolic BS. It’s the crime that is classified as “violent” even if no violence occurred.and not necessarily the inmates at question.

  7. Washington State Department of Natural Resources used people convicted of violent crimes. The only stipulation was that they be towards the end of their sentence and housed in a work camp. This was back in the 90’s.

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