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Inmate firefighters help protect SLO Co., but crews are diminished after justice reform

Posted: 5:40 PM, Aug 05, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-05 22:41:14-04
Inmate firefighters help protect SLO Co., but crews are diminished after justice reform

When large wildfires break out in California, including San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, it's all hands on deck to protect life and property.

Many of those hands have spent time in shackles but as recently passed criminal justice reform laws take full effect, the number of inmate firefighters is down.

"The reason most of them do it is to get a reduction in their sentence," said CAL FIRE District Commander John Owens, who manages the San Luis Obispo County district inmate firefighter crews.

Every day of work inmates do as a firefighter counts as two days toward their sentence.

Putting inmates on the front lines also benefits California taxpayers. Inmate firefighters earn about $1 per hour to risk their lives, which is considerably less than firefighters employed with the state.

Despite the hard work, each fire call allows inmates Darren Smith and Jerry Garza to see the job in a different light.

"I'd like to continue doing this, not only from in here, but when I get out," Garza said.

"I just love the thrill. It's a joy now to go out there and fight fires, save the community, save houses," Smith said.

For the second season in a row, Smith is fighting fires on the front lines.

"The first season, (I was) definitely timid, wasn't really ready," Smith said. "Now I'm all for it."

Smith prefers to measure his time away from family in fire seasons, instead of days spent behind bars at the California Men's Colony.

To qualify for a firefighting position, an inmate's crime must be non-violent.

But with criminal justice reform efforts like Assembly Bill 109, which diverts low-level offenders away from prison, the pool of qualified candidates is shrinking.

"We have five crews normally. Right now we have four crews," Owens said. "We're short 25 inmate firefighters, but our system overall is short 1,300 firefighters in the entire state."

While Owens supports restructuring the sentencing guidelines and thinning out the prison population, he knows that also means fewer boots on the ground.

"They're like the infantry of CAL FIRE. They do a lot of hard work. They hike the hills and get in places where the bulldozers can't and fire engines can't and put hand-line in," Owens said.

Inmate crews don't just help with firefighting and prevention.

"We did that Bishop Peak rescue," Garza said proudly.

Garza and his crew cut through thick brush to help emergency responders reach a woman who fell 50 feet while rappelling in June.

"It's a rush. It's something you don't think you can do, you overcome it and feel good about yourself," Garza said.

Though Garza and Smith excel in the program, Owens knows that once the two men are released, it's unlikely he will see them again. That is, at least, not on the inmate squad.

"The majority of them, over 60 percent, don't end up back in jail," Owens said.

That means Owens is constantly recruiting and training new crew members for work that may just be a means to an end or, possibly, the start to a new beginning.

"Prior to me coming to jail, I was all for myself," Smith said. "This has taught me a lot about team work. If I thought I'd be a firefighter, I'd be lying. Never in a million years. But now, I love it."

To help bolster the decline in eligible inmate crew members, CAL FIRE SLO started a probation program. Through that Ventura-based program, probationers can serve out their court-ordered supervision as a firefighter on a pathway to a career.