Fire season is upon us and Firefighter Crew 13-3 is ready to swing into action. But Crew 13-3 isn’t the firefighting crew you imagine. Crew 13-3 is an inmate firefighting crew, stationed in Malibu, is one of many inmate crews stationed throughout California. You might be surprised to learn that there are approximately 4,000 inmate firefighters in California. Depending on the location, that makes up between 50 to 80 percent of all ground firefighting crews. The job is offered to inmates who volunteer and are physically able. Most inmates who qualify are incarcerated for low-level crimes, often associated with drug- or alcohol-related offenses. Both men and women serve these crews and, as you might suspect, the work is dangerous and the pay is low.
This program, known as the Conservation Camp Program, has been around since 1946. It is estimated to save California tax payers roughly $100 million a year because the inmate crews are paid a maximum of $2.56 a day—far less than a civilian firefighter is paid. But the work comes with some perks. The inmates aren’t incarcerated in prison; rather, they live in “Conservation Camps” that are more like retreats than prison. The food is good, the scenery is often exquisite, family visits are allowed, and some camps have vegetable gardens, yoga and meditation sessions, among other amenities that most prison inmates don’t enjoy. There is a camaraderie among the inmates that is not found in a traditional prison and many of the inmates report great satisfaction from the work.
The state recognizes that prison incarceration often fails to rehabilitate the defendant. And in the state’s self-interest, the state also recognizes that incarcerating criminals whose crimes were not violent, puts a burden on the prison system. Alternative sentencing schemes are available to address both of these problems. This Conservation Camp Program is one of many alternative sentencing options that are available to persons convicted of crimes in California.