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Inmate firefighters save California $100 million per year

Posted: 1:05 AM, Sep 12, 2018
Updated: 2018-09-12 08:05:03Z

As California's record breaking wildfire season continues, men and women are answering the call from all over the state to fight on the frontline, including convicted felons. 
Prado Conservation Camp in Chino is one of the 44 camps where inmates are saving the state $100 million on the life-threatening job in exchange for minimal pay but an earlier release.

Sitting right next to the Chino State Prison, Prado Conservation camp is a reminder to the 79 inmates there that they could be serving their time behind bars.

"It’s some of the hardest work I have done,” said inmate Derick McGruder. “I don’t mind the work. Its rewarding at the end but when you are going through it it’s kind of brutal.”

On Monday, crews returned from 15 hours overnight on the front line of the Fork Fire in Azusa.

"It’s a steep hike up the mountain," said inmate Juan Torres. "We cut line around the black which is the burned area. We have to make sure that the burned area doesn't’t get to the non burned area which could make the fires spread.”

Inmates work for 12 hours and get 24 hours to rest. Earning one dollar per hour, they are working for freedom more so than money.

The time spent at a California Department of Corrections Conservation camp counts as twice as much towards an inmate's sentence. 

“I cant say that this was a waste of time for me,” said inmate Robert Vazquez.

Many at Prado said the alternate opportunity was only possible because of proposition 57. Passed in 2016, CDC officials say it's made it easier for felons to earn credits on good behavior- getting them out of prison and putting them to work at conservation camps.

“if your objective is to go home and want to do good. It prepares you for that,” said Torres.

A CDC board determines whether inmates are eligible for the program depending on their charges and behavior.

They get to work after two weeks of training from Cal Fire.

“These guys are out there working hard right along line with the fire fighters saving lives and homes,” said Tracy Snyder with CDC.

In doing that same work, some argue that their $1 per hour wage is not enough.

“Some of us feel a little underappreciated," said McGruder.

Meanwhile others see it as an invaluable opportunity.

"For me it’s just, because to me liberty has no price. For me to be able to go home faster to my family about 17 months sooner, it’s priceless,” said Torres. 

He has spent 21 years, half of his life, in prison on two counts of attempted murder.

“So when they say I’m underpaid, it’s a matter of perspective. To me, I am overpaid because I am being paid back with freedom," he said.

As California wildfire season continue to become more destructive every year, the state's 2500 inmate firefighters are valuable resources coming at next to nothing in cost. They save the state about $100 million per year.

“There’s people behind here. Good people. Very good people that is back here working and pretty much breaking their backs out here for Cal Fire and CDC to actually protect homes," said McGruder.

This year inmates from Prado assisted with the Mendocino Complex Fire and at the mudslides following the Thomas Fire.

“Most of my life I have been in prison and it’s basically the tax payers that have been providing for me to live in prison and be fed and housed," said Torres.

“It does not feel like we are just convicts," said Vazquez. "We can do something for the community and give back because a lot of us have been just robbing and stealing and doing crime. When we come here we are able to you know give back to the community that we took from.”

Many inmates become interested in continuing on as firefighters after they are released. CDC says while it's not possible for them to be hired on at city and county fire departments with a felony record, come are able to pursue seasonal fire opportunities.