Deaths, stabbings, heart attacks and attempted suicides – they are all in a day’s work for the inmates who make up the San Quentin Fire Department. These first responders work hand-in-hand with correctional and outside paramedical staff to save lives.
The four-member crew consists of David Clifford, Pedro Cruz, Rolon Morris Sr. and Leroy Cota.
“I’ve seen so many people die and that weighs on you,” said Cruz. “Not so much of the natural deaths, but those who harmed themselves through suicides – that stays with you.
“We worked on people in protective custody and on Death Row. The question for us is not what they’ve done; it’s for us to value their life and property.”
The men exercise the same professional care as their free staff counterparts.
The crew is not limited to the prison buildings and grounds within the walls. These inmate firefighters also respond to calls within the civilian residential areas inside the East Gate.
“It’s about teamwork when you respond to a call,” said Cota, who has been on the crew for seven months. “It’s organized chaos. You have to deal with the yelling of concerned inmates; you have to have all your equipment for whatever tier you might be on, because there is no going back.
“And this has to be going through your mind even before you get to the call,” Cota added.
(Each San Quentin residential housing unit has five tiers.)
Unlike other prison jobs, these inmates are on call 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
“You have to be able to learn and control yourself under pressure,” said Cruz, the crew lead man, who has been on the job for three years. “You have to be aware of the outside paramedics’ standard operating procedures. That’s why everybody is trained in everything.”
These men have been trained by staff in CPR, how to deal with a bleeding victim, how to work an oxygen tank and a gurney. The crew job descriptions are scribe, lead engineer and two gurney men, top and bottom.
Clifford added, “When they die, we have to carry the body away. They have to ride with us; it’s a surreal feeling. It’s a process just to sleep.”
The past few months the men have witnessed multiple deaths and attempted suicides.
“You can see how dedicated and professional the guys are,” said inmate Carlos Flores, who witnessed the crew trying to save a life. “The effort they gave was inspiring. If I was the one on that ground, I know they will do everything they could to keep me alive.”
The fire captains, who are correctional officers, always check in with the crew to see if they need any counseling after a call.
“They are offered the same Post Traumatic Stress counseling that we get,” said Senior Fire Capt. Huff. “It’s always hard to process death.”
The men said they go all out to save a life, whether it’s the warden’s or that of a wounded seagull on the yard.
“It’s life-changing,” Morris said. “You start thinking, ‘What if that were me?’ and then you start thinking about his family.”
The crew does see some bright spots on the job. They remember responding to a call on Death Row, where they spent close to 30 minutes giving CPR to the prisoner — each crew member mechanically taking turns, before the patient was pronounced dead.
“The question for us is not what they’ve done; it’s for us to value their life and property”
Despite having been pronounced dead, the victim stirred when they began to roll him away. He not only started to move, but he began to breathe, too. The crew said the guy later wrote them a thank-you letter.
“This job gives you the feeling that you are giving back,” said Morris. “We went from victimizing to saving victims. This job teaches you to never take life for granted.”
Huff added, “This is a great program for the guys and the state. It helps the state save money by using inmates for these jobs, and it gives the men training before they parole.”
He admits it would be hard for these inmate first-responders to get out and become firefighters, because it is a competitive field, plus having a felony conviction usually disqualifies an applicant for a firefighting job. But he said it has been done.
“We might not be able to get a job doing this work,” said Cruz. “But we can take this training back to our communities. If it’s an emergency situation, we will know how to respond.”