One of the major unintended consequences of realignment is loss of more than 1,500 critically important prisoner forest firefighters.
For more than 60 years, California has used nonviolent prisoners to clear brush and fight fires. Those eligible are well-behaved nonviolent offenders serving time for such crimes as burglary, drug possession and welfare fraud.
“When things get busy, it’s the first thing we run out of,” said Andy McMurry, deputy director of fire protection for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The Los Angeles Times.
The Rural Fire Protection Working Group has been studying the issue of how realignment will affect the number of firefighters available to California’s 39 prisoner fire camps. Many of the men would wind up in county jails instead of state prison fire camps.
State officials plan to charge counties $46.19 a day for each prisoner they send to fire camps – which is more than the sheriffs expect to spend to keep them in jail. For example, under realignment the state is giving Solano County about $21 a day for each prisoner housed in its jail.
On average, it costs over $150 a day to incarcerate each of California’s prisoners.
The 4,500 camp prisoners are paid $1.45 a day plus $1 while they are on a fire line. They account for nearly half of the state’s wildland firefighters. It would cost about $100 million a year to replace them with civilian firefighters. The crews spend about eight million hours a year on conservation and community service projects for state, federal and local government agencies when they are not fighting fires.
The number of prison firefighters is expected to drop by nearly 40 percent next year, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which operates the program jointly with Cal Fire.
To avoid the problem, state prison and fire officials are working with local governments on a training program for county prisoners.
Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Riverside, told the LA Times that maintaining inmate firefighting ranks is critical to public safety.