Google satellite view of the High Rock Conservation Camp, near Avenue of the Giants.

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Exciting news for fans of public watchdogging! The Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury has issued its first report of the year — an examination of the county’s two state conservation camps, where prison inmates are trained to fight wildfires. 

The Civil Grand Jury, an independent body of 19 volunteer citizens, functions as an instrument of the state court system. Its duty: to investigate and report on the institutions of local government. That includes annual visits to all the places where residents get detained, such as county jails, juvenile halls and, here in Humboldt County, Sempervirens Psychiatric Health Facility and those two fire camps: High Rock Conservation Camp, near Weott, and Eel River Conservation Camp, near Redway.

The report characterizes these camps as models of rehabilitation where inmates learn job skills, gain self-respect and prepare to re-enter society as functional, employable citizens — all while providing the state with more than $100 million-worth of firefighting resources each year.

“The rehabilitative function of [these camps] is priceless,” the report reads. “Teamwork of the multi-ethnic crews fosters cooperation, co-existence, and responsibility, in stark contrast to the rigid racial divisions of state prison life.”

Not everyone holds such a high opinion of the fire camps. During California’s devastating 2018 wildfire season, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) attracted a good deal of scrutiny and criticism for paying inmates just $2 per day plus $1 per hour when they were actively fighting fires. (This Grand Jury report notes that the daily wage has increased to between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, depending on skill level and assignment.) Some have even gone so far as to characterize this practice as “slave labor.”

Investigations have also found that while inmates at these camps do learn valuable skills, they face significant barriers to employment once released. Many fire departments require firefighters to be a licensed EMTs, and as CNBC reported, EMT certifying boards typically reject applicants with criminal histories.

However, the Grand Jury report notes that prisoners volunteer to work at the camps, partly because doing so earns them reductions to their prison sentences. But that’s not all:

“Of greater value to the inmate are the knowledge, skills, and abilities they learn at the Camps, where inmates develop self-respect and self-discipline,” the report says. When they’re not fighting fires, these inmates provide conservation services for state parks, schools and county roadways; they donate firewood to seniors; they run a cabinet shop, turning out quality wood products such as cabinets, tables and chairs; they maintain vegetable gardens and more. 

Plus, inmates can take drug and alcohol rehab classes, attend in religious services and study music appreciation “with access to guitars and keyboards for musical exploration and creativity.”

Still, the firefighting services are the camps’ mosts valuable contribution, the report suggests. “The communities they have saved have often called the inmate fire crews ‘Angels in Orange.’”

The Grand Jury report borrows that exalting nickname as the title of its report, and it says that if there’s a problem with these camps it’s that they’ve become “understaffed.” There simply aren’t enough inmates to fully stock the state’s compliment of firefighting hand crews. During the 2019 fire season, the report says, 18 crews from Northern California’s fire camps went unstaffed due to a shortage of qualified inmates.

What happened to all the qualified inmates? Well, thanks to California’s public safety realignment — a series of laws designed to achieve a court-ordered reduction in prison overcrowding — many would-be prisoners now serve their sentences in county jails. This Grand Jury report says jails “lack the rehabilitative benefits found in service at the camps.” Meanwhile, the Humboldt County Correctional Facility is often near or at capacity.

The Grand Jury report suggests that there might yet be a way to get these inmates involved with the fire camps.”As with many issues in life,” the report observes rather drolly, “it is complicated.”

In order to gain the full rehabilitative effects of the fire camps, an inmate should probably serve as “a productive member of a fire crew” for about a year, the report says. Problem is, most inmates at the Humboldt County Correctional Facility are serving terms of just a few months, while “[t]hose who are there for a longer time are usually still waiting for court dates or are not appropriate to be assigned to Camps, such as violent offenders.”

Regardless, the Grand Jury believes this is a goal worth pursuing. Among its recommendations is for the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office to coordinate with CDCR “to identify willing and qualified inmates for shorter work assignments that do not require extensive training.”

This, the Grand Jury argues, would be a better use of inmate labors than the current practice of assigning them to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP) or roadside maintenance crews.

The law allows county sheriffs to transfer qualified inmates to the conservation camps, according to the report. “There seems to be an obvious nexus between a crowded [county jail] and the need for inmates at Conservation Camps,” it states.

The full report is well worth a read. We’ve posted a link to it below. The report concludes with a series of recommendations — among them, that the CDCR ask the state legislature to permit former inmates who’ve served at least a year in a Conservation Camp to earn an EMT certification. 

The report also says the CDCR should maintain and publish better data on the camps and review its guidelines to ensure that the camps are being used to their full potential.

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DOCUMENT: “Angels in Orange” — Service and Rehabilitation in the Conservation Camps of Humboldt County