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Calif. Prisoner Firefighters Deserve Respect, Too

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Sep 03, 2009

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Tedmund Hall and Arnaldo Quinones great heroes. The two firefighters were killed Sunday when their truck went off the road as they fled the raging flames. Moments before, the pair had valiantly shepherded nearly 60 California inmate firefighters to safety. The praise of Hall's and Quinoness heroism didnt stop with Schwarzenegger. Nearly every other local political figure paid public homage to the men. A slew of memorials and tributes were planned to honor them.

News accounts of Halls and Quinoness deaths barely mentioned that prisoners were also battling hard against the fires, but that was no mere oversight. For years California inmates have performed valued service fighting the ritual fires that plague Southern California every year. They get only bare mention and even barer recognition of their service, even though they face the same risks of injury and death as regular fire crews.

The numbers of California prisoners that brave the fire dangers arent small. In 2007, more than 4,000 offenders participated in the firefighting program. They comprised of 200 fire crews. Last year alone, inmates worked some 3.1 million hours, fighting fire at $1 an hour, according to Reuters. In addition to their firefighting duties, the inmates also play a huge role in fighting floods, search and rescue operations and earthquakes. A large number also work year round on conservation projects on public land.

Theres another reason that the inmates get barely a ripple of attention and no public praise for their work. The firefighting inmates are non-violent, non-serious offenders and must be free of major prison rule infractions. That makes them potentially the poster inmates for the kind prison reformers argue should be eligible for early release, as ordered by a three-judge federal court.

It is unlikely their release would jeopardize public safety or ignite a crime wave. Yet, the fact that they perform unheralded but spotless service in safeguarding lives and personal property flies squarely in the face of the lurid picture that politicians routinely paint of inmates released early. The scare story is that they will prowl the streets and commit murder and mayhem.

Law enforcement officials hector and badger California legislators at the faintest hint of an early release plan to scrap them. They claim that theres no such thing as a non-violent, no-risk offender that all offenders have or will commit serious crimes. They relentlessly point to the shocking and media sensational case of Lily Burk, a Los Angeles teen killed in June and whose alleged killer was released to a halfway house. They cite his release as proof of the great danger in the early release of inmates, and to torpedo the wider use of alternative sentencing.

California is the textbook example of a state that should grab at alternative methods of punishment to ease its exploding inmate population. The 170,000 inmates in California prisons top the number of inmates in several European nations combined. The overwhelming majority of these inmates are jailed for non-violent or drug related offenses. Despite the grotesque overcrowding and recent bloody riots in Californias Chino prison due to the overcrowding, the states politicians continue to engage in a rancorous, prolonged battle to skirt a federal court order to release tens of thousands of prisoners.

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