Prisoners Fighting Fires

By Dianne Frazee-Walker  Image courtesy grist.org

The California prison system is stepping up to the plate by fighting fire with fire.  Yes, that’s right — they are saving tax-payer’s money and providing low level offenders with valuable skills and purpose by putting them to work fighting wildfires. Another side benefit of this ingenious project is California’s prisons are emptying out because these inmates are earning earlier release dates and are not reoffending.

Demetrius Barr is one of the first Los Angeles County inmates to be granted the opportunity to leave his confined jail cell and enter a natural atmosphere of breathtaking landscapes and spacious campsites. Not only can Barr help save this precious land from the destruction of fire, but his own life can be salvaged from the unforgiving world of crack dealing.

Image courtesy justicenotjails.org

Barr doesn’t get to enjoy this new type of freedom for nothing. He receives this privilege by maintaining his fitness and best behavior, and being willing to fight thousand-degree flames. The best reward for fulfilling his commitment to the Pitches Detention center where he was trained, is earning good-time credits that will permit him to decrease his seven-year sentence by 35%. This would also insure that Barr “has what it takes” when confronted with a challenge as significant as a raging forest fire. 

The general public would be surprised if they realized about 50% of California wildfire fighters are prisoners and a few of them are incarcerated women. Capt. Jorge Santana, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) liaison who supervises the camps, confirms these inmates are dedicated to changing their lives while serving the public and are saving the state over $1 billion a year. Inmate firefighters are contributing a major positive impact on California’s financial and environmental well-being.

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Three Strike Lifers Freed from Prison

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

California voters were probably not aware when they backtracked on the three strikes law that a new population was created. The “time tunnel generation.” Most of the three strikers that were paying the price for three offenses are now 50ish folks, who had never even heard of a cell phone when they were incarcerated, let alone an iPad, but some of these ex-offenders are making the best of a peculiar situation. The average length of time the “three strikers” spent away from society is nine years.  Image courtesy eii.org

Statistics prove the determination of these misplaced baby boomers with a 2% recidivism rate. Perhaps their reentry success is the product of growing up in an industrious generation.

Most of the released inmates merely made poor decisions when they were in their teens and twenties and fell victim to a hasty legislative calamity. Now that California voters reneged on their seemingly sound choices for policies to “lock-up” the drudges of society, after decades of imprisonment the “time tunnel generation” is paying a bittersweet price for their freedom.

Some of these transformed “lifers” are using the passing of proposition 36 to their advantage. Originating from a generation of old-fashioned work ethics these ex-cons know how to make it in the real world no matter what it takes. The 50ish newly released hustlers share courageous stories of surviving in a world that has made more technological advances in the last twenty years than any other generation.

Novel reentry employment strategies range from handyman jobs to making gyros. 

Spectators pressed their faces and cell phones, taking pictures through the glass windows of McDonald’s in downtown Martinez. Stephan Williams was released last winter from Contra Costa County Jail after a 19-year stint of a life sentence for his third offense, which was for stealing a car. Williams walked out of jail with only the clothes on his back. People stared at Williams as though they were looking at a cave man descending from his cave. Not only did Williams look like a cave man, but he felt like one, too. The cost of everything had hit the roof. Readjusting to society was an immense astonishment for the humble man. The Bay Area was more crowded and more ethnically diverse than it was in 1994 when Williams went to prison. The traffic and noise jolted him. In the new world, organic foods were now replacing Jack-the-Box.

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