Prisoners at Oak Glen Conservation Camp leave the minimum-security prison on September 28, 2017 for work deployment under the authority of Cal Fire. While deployed, and until they return to camp, they are called and treated as firefighters, not inmates. 

Rehabilitation—and respect

For California’s prison managers, the new program had another benefit: the prospect of rehabilitation. Prisoners would save forests, and the forests, in turn, would save the men. Romantic notions of male rehabilitation through outdoor forest work drew on deeply entrenched myths about frontier life. If urban blight and industrial decline undermined men’s good conduct and citizenship, then forests, mountains and proximity to wholesome country folk could provide the antidote.

At least that was the idea.

For many rural communities, though, the proximity of prisoners, most of whom were people of color, fed a deeply entrenched racial animus. In 1949, for example, a resident of the small town of Magalia, 90 miles north of Sacramento, spoke on behalf of the “people in this community” when he asked that there should “be no Negroes or Japanese prisoners in the camp.” Many white folks migrating from the burgeoning cities and suburbs did so to find a “natural escape” from the trials of city life like traffic congestion, pollution, urban development—and crime. That helps explains why white San Franciscan transplants prevented the establishment of forest camps in Sonoma and Santa Clara counties north and south of the city, despite the pleas of professional firefighters.

But given the work they did, and the lives they touched, prisoners themselves demanded respect as firefighters first, as workers second—and often received it. 

In one 1961 letter, a resident addressed the inmates at Chamberlain Creek: “I wish to thank Crew 1 in their part in fighting and controlling the Guerneville fire… I [heard] one lady in a soda fountain saying, ‘Those men from the volunteer fire department in the blue outfits, you know, like the dungarees the navy men wear, well, the fire came down to my back porch, right where my wash was hanging and they came in and put it out. They didn’t even get the clothes dirty.’ … Then I told her that you were convicts and she said, ‘I don’t care who they are. They saved my house.’”

In 1964 the residents of Crestline in the San Bernardino mountains hosted an appreciation dinner, handed over a thank-you note with more than 1,300 signatures and erected a statue to commemorate what the California Department of Corrections called a “unique California ‘army.’” 

Former inmate Wayne Hunnicutt remembered grateful communities frequently “[bringing] stuff out for us.” “No one treated us like prisoners.” Charles Dean, one of the many college student volunteers in the fire seasons of 1954 and 1955, remembers working next to prisoners: “There simply was no line between us.”

Read now: I Went With Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison

Things get tense

The state successfully maneuvered its prison firefighters in a loose organization of honor camps until 1960. That year, its decision to build a large-scale conservation-camp program with central prisons and satellite camps required moving more prisoners from the Southland to work in its northern forests. Such remote deployments severed prisoners’ family ties and made camp assignments less popular as a volunteer choice. When the state’s prison population actually declined for the first time at the end of the decade, the conservation-camp program turned firefighting into a mandatory assignment. Eventually, it would return to being voluntary—a term critics have described as fairly meaningless in a prison setting.

As Southern California’s cities grew more diverse, so did the camp inmates. By 1971, a predominantly nonwhite camp population found itself guarded by overwhelmingly white guards in the state’s most exclusively white counties, not unlike the dynamic at the state’s notorious San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad prisons. Tensions predictably rose. On October 31, 1972, 800 prisoners in Jamestown, just east of Yosemite National Park, staged the largest labor strike the old gold-mining town had ever seen. Indeed, some have likened the back-breaking, often dangerous work the camp prisoners do to modern-day “slave” labor, saving the state millions of dollars in professional wages. (Today, the prisoners earn $2 a day, and in emergency deployments, $1 an hour.)

Throughout the ’70s and the tough-on-crime ’80s, the image of the firefighting prisoner as a soldier on the home front lost much of its romance, as did the idea of rehabilitation through contact with nature. But the growing costs and conditions of mass incarceration—not to mention ballooning price tags for battling the state’s historic blazes—and changes in the political and actual climate may well position inmate firefighters to re-emerge as underdog heroes. 

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