As public safety organizations struggle to work within the constraints of budgetary and staffing concerns, many agencies are looking outside traditional methods to meet their needs. One century-old practice is the mutually beneficial partnership with minimum-security prisons to recruit incarcerated men and women as volunteers in the fire service. Public safety entities are able to staff for fire suppression and emergency services, and volunteering inmates receive life-changing training that can present opportunities after their release.

Emergency response benefits from inexpensive labor

Along with the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) pioneered the use of inmates for fighting wildfires with the introduction of Conservation Camps in 1915. During World War II, a severe shortage of fire personnel prompted the CDCR expand the program to supplement the existing base of fire professionals. Traditionally only offered to males, the CalFire program opened several of the camps to female inmates in the 1980s.

Since allowing inmates the freedom of working on a fire line is a security risk, there are strict regulations to determine who is eligible. For CalFire inmates, only those in a minimum-custody situation with a history of good behavior are considered. No one with convictions of sexual offenses, arson, or escape, or a history of violent behavior, can be eligible for training. Even if it only leads to placement on a waiting list, the opportunity to be a part of the Conservation Camp program inspires inmates to maintain their good behavior status.

A 2015 article reported that the CalFire inmates actively contribute to the California economy. Volunteers perform over 2.5 million hours of work annually and require negligible compensation—within the context of the prison system, $2 per day is on the high end. While this compensation is controversial, this adds up to annual tax savings for the state of more than $80 million dollars. CalFire inmates are housed at 44 isolated camps located in high-risk fire areas.

As other states begin to see the advantages to utilizing inmates in firefighting, they are beginning to establish their own programs. Other wildfire-prone states like Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Washington all have their own inmate firefighter programs. Utah has long provided inmates with the advanced training needed to make them part of the elite Hotshots, called upon to battle the flames in the heart of a wildfire.

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Inmates learn more than firefighting

The assignment is physically demanding. Fire crews often carry up to 100 pounds of equipment in intense heat. As a result, before they will be considered for the camp, inmates must pass a physical exam and complete two-weeks of physical fitness training. The state sends successful candidates to formal training, a four-week stint at a firefighter academy.

This is the same training professional firefighters undertake, and inmates are expected to perform at the same level. Firefighting is not the only skill the inmates will learn; they are also educated in skills to assist in other emergencies, such as filling sandbags when the threat of flooding is present. When there are no fires to fight or other emergencies to handle, the Conservation Camp inmates participate in other community service programs.

Similar programs provide Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training for prisoners. As far back as the 1970s, when Duke University pioneered the paramedic program, prison doctors were petitioning for materials to train inmates with medical backgrounds. By the late 1980s, Illinois piloted a similar program in an underserved, rural area of the state, where Southeastern Illinois Community College provided low-risk prisoners with EMT training. With this training, inmates were able to provide transport services from rural areas to nearby medical facilities.

In some cases, inmates EMTs will treat fellow inmates within correctional facilities. Kentucky and Georgia both have programs currently training inmates to respond to medical emergencies within their institutions.

Looking Forward

In a time when we are looking to reduce re-offense and incarceration costs, training inmates in fire and EMS has shown it can be one solution. The positive outcomes of decades-long programs to train inmates in fire and EMS suggest education can be an effective method of significantly reducing recidivism. Inmates have commented how training and working alongside firefighters has made them feel like they are actively contributing, raising their self-esteem. Combining training and empowerment could greatly reduce recidivism rates. Conservation Camp alumni have 13% employment rate post-release; training in fire and emergency medical services could easily take the lead of rehabilitation measures aimed at curbing re-offense and permanently reducing the overpopulation of America’s correctional institutions.

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