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San Diego County To Send 50 More Inmates To Fire Camps

Above: Inmate firefighters train in Los Angeles County.

Dozens of San Diego inmates will soon be transferred from county jails to state-run fire camps as part of an effort to ease overcrowding and to provide support to firefighters on the front lines.

Aired 8/8/13 on KPBS News.

Dozens of San Diego inmates will soon be transferred from county jails to state-run fire camps as part of an effort to ease overcrowding and to provide support to firefighters on the front lines.

San Diego County Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a plan backed by the Sheriff and the District Attorney to move at least 50 male and female inmates to the county’s four fire camps, which are run by the California Department of Corrections and Cal Fire.

The camps, two designated for females and two for males, are located in the backcountry communities of Warner Springs, McCain Valley, Rainbow and Julian.

State prison inmates have historically been housed at the camps but the 2011 prison realignment plan to end chronic prison overcrowding threatened to deplete the program because low-level prisoners were being transferred to county jails instead of the camps.

Cal Fire spokesman Nick Schuler said there are currently 339 inmate firefighters in San Diego County with a capacity for 446.

"The numbers always fluctuate for various reasons," said Schuler. "Those who are paroling and getting out of the camps or those that have to go back into the system for a variety of reasons. But we hope with the recent decision that we’ll see those numbers increase."

Shuler said the inmates, distinguished by their orange jumpsuits, provide essential support in fighting major blazes.

"These crews provide a critical firefighting force that allows us to access extremely steep, rugged terrain and provide what we call cutting line — essentially putting a line around those fires in very remote areas," said Shuler.

The county plans to budget $950,000 this fiscal year in state realignment money to pay for the program but funding for next year remains uncertain. The current state policy requires counties to pay $46 per day per inmate to house realigned offenders at fire camps. San Diego County supervisors say they'll urge lawmakers to eliminate that fee.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 7, 2013 at 2:31 p.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

Are tehse voluntary or forced?

This raises serious ethical concerns.

It is against the law for prisoners to be used in clinical trials because they are a vulnerable population easily manipulated and desperate to be out of jail.

It seems these same concerns could apply when it comes to sending them into harms way to fight wildfires.

It's too easy to, in the frenzy of a deadly wildfire, make the decision to "let the prisoners do the most dangerous work" since their lives are less worthy than the brave men and women on the force.

It just opens-up an entire can of worms.

Why doesn't the county just release the non-violent, less dangerous offenders to make room?

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 7, 2013 at 2:36 p.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

The connection I was trying to make above is that informed consent from a vulnerable population is very hard to legitimately obtain.

This is why asking a prisoner to volunteer for a clinical trial is ILLEGAL.

I see the same ethical concerns with asking them to go fight wildfires.

how do you legitimately get informed consent to be put in harm's way from a prison population?

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Avatar for user 'RonKind'

RonKind | August 8, 2013 at 8:41 a.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

Obviously it's voluntary you moron.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 8, 2013 at 10:29 a.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

RonKind, apparently you can't comprehend what I write, let me spell it out for you since you appear to be slow:

Prisoners are in a vulnerable situation where it's easy to be taken advantage of and where people are more likely to put themselves in harms way if they feel it will make them look better to officials who control their shelter, food, and medical care.

Again, like I said above, they can't volunteer to be in a clinical trial by law because it's they can't legitimately consent to something that is potentially harmful because they are a vulnerable class of people. My question is why, then, are they allowed to volunteer for firefighting which is also potentially harmful.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | August 8, 2013 at 1:45 p.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

Incarceration does not eliminate ones ability to make decisions, though it obviously limits what decisions are possible.
I don't have a problem with putting otherwise idle populatoins to prodictive tasks, or incentivizing them to do so with 'good behavior' points.
I agree that it is illegal to ask them to volunteer for studies, but believe that rationale to be wrong, certainly no more wrong than the acceptable payment of blood donors or test volunteers motivated by money rather than working off jail time more quickly.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | August 8, 2013 at 1:54 p.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago


From Cal Fire:

"They are carefully screened by custodial agencies for their suitability for the program, including physical, emotional, and intellectual aptitudes."

I'm all for such programs. This provides low-risk inmates with a sense of belonging and purpose in the community, they feel good about themselves, repay their debt to society, and best of all have usable skills when they are released.

Also, they do much more than just fight fires. From Cal Fire:

"When not assigned to emergency response or prefire project work, crews conduct labor-intensive project work on public lands. These fire crews conduct critical hazard fuels reduction projects in support the state and federal fie plans. Additionally, fire crew projects include repair and maintenance of levies for flood prevention; maintenance of local, state, and federal park infrastructures; clearing debris from streams; removing roadside litter; constructing hiking trails; and providing many other important community services."

We need to put more money into this great program!

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | August 8, 2013 at 3:31 p.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

An added bonus is the self-esteem the inmates realize after performing these tasks. I think it's helpful for their rehabilitation and re-entry into society. It's dangerous work, but so is engaging in criminal activity.

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