You always plead. Statistically speaking. There’s literally no end—today in the paper, they’ve got a quote from a guy doing life for armed robbery—to what they can do to you if you fight, and anyway most of the time they have the documents, the surveillance videos, the gun under the passenger seat, and you take what they give you. Because the number they come to you with—ten years with half, eight years at 80 percent, it’s all very baroque—is only the beginning. The higher the number, the rougher the yard, and in California, this second set of numbers—level-three yards, level-four yards—can denote their own kind of punishment.
Justin pled, and he had never heard of the Conservation Camp program when he and his wife, Kelly, were sentenced in Fresno County, California, for running a massive mortgage-fraud operation.
“They came into court wearing street clothes,” read the local ABC affiliate’s story on the hearing in which Justin was sentenced to almost ten years in prison, “but they left in handcuffs.” The article ran with a photo of the pair in court: Kelly looks straight at the judge, grim and defiant. Justin, turning abjectly toward his wife, slouching in a green polo under which protrudes a hint of potbelly, looks broken.
When I met him in August, Justin—who asked that I not use his last name—was wearing an inmate’s orange jumpsuit, though we were 20 miles from the nearest prison. He was sitting at one of the long plastic dining tables in the center of the Tuolumne City Incident Command Post, an impossibly busy firefighting base built in a park in the center of tiny Tuolumne City, on the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest in California’s Western Sierra.
A good third of the base was taken up by a series of white canvas tents, no bigger than tractor sheds, each housing 32 inmates. The rest of the base served as an operations center and home for the thousands of firefighters and support personnel working to contain the Rim wildfire, which was then exploding through the canopies of the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, its nearest edge only a few miles from our location. There were fire engines parked on the narrow streets—a precaution against the possibility that the fire might jump a nearby canyon and come rolling into town. The smoke was so thick that it burned our eyes. “My daughters basically know their parents are in prison,” Justin told me. “But if you ask, they just say, ‘Daddy’s a firefighter.’”
Justin is part of California’s Conservation Camp program—a huge but little known joint venture between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency. The program, in place since 1946, disperses some 4,200 felons from California’s notoriously crowded and dangerous prisons and relocates them to 42 camps situated in rural, fire-prone areas ranging from the Oregon border all the way down to San Diego County. Given that Cal Fire only has about 4,700 full-time employees, inmate crews like the one Justin works on represent a huge portion of the state’s firefighting capacity. Inmates spend most of the year serving their time in the camps, building parks and doing other good works, but when a fire breaks out, they’re dispatched and live in an incident base until the conflagration is contained.
Inmates are the state’s main source of so-called hand crews—the teams that do the roughest, and probably the most dangerous, work of wildland firefighting: marching deep into burning forests where big engines and bulldozers can’t penetrate. Once there, they use chainsaws and hand tools to cut what is called the containment line—basically, a trench that a fire, if all goes as planned, can’t leap over. The teams that do this work for the federal government are known as hotshots, and tend to be thought of as heroes, like the 19 Granite Mountain hotshots who burned to death last June, working a fire in Arizona.
Wildfires have been growing in size and frequency all over the west—a particular issue in California, with its huge rural and semi-urban populations scattered through forest, chaparral, and desert up and down the state. The combination brings on disasters like what’s known in Cal Fire lore as the “2003 Fire Siege” of Southern California—14 wildfires, 750,043 acres burned, 3,710 homes destroyed, a billion dollars in property damage, and 24 people killed, all in a single season.
Meanwhile, budget cuts for rehabilitation programs and new sentencing guidelines have made a fiscal and moral disaster out of the state prison system. Spending on prisons has increased by 486 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 1980, and the system is now under federal receivership after repeated court rulings finding that crowding in the prisons amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. But California has always been a state built on easy reinvention and neat solutions, and when I first heard about the Conservation Camp program, I became enchanted with it as a typically Californian attempt to address two very 21st-century problems facing the state: taking an overabundance of prisoners and using them to tackle an overabundance of wildfires.
I recently moved to California, seeking reinvention, and I became sort of unfashionably interested in the state’s attempts to address its various policy and ecological disasters. When the Rim fire—named for the Rim of the World Vista off Highway 120, near where a hunter’s illegal campfire burned out of control in August—broke out in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the preoccupation became something like an obsession. Without waiting for a magazine assignment or even getting any assurance from state officials that I’d be able to hang out with prisoners or see the fire, I loaded up my truck and drove to the Sierra.
By the time I came to Tuolumne City, the fire had already spread at an almost unthinkable pace, shooting through the treetops in 30,000- and 50,000-acre leaps of “crownfire”—runs of flame tearing through the forest canopy. A 50,000-acre fire alone is something the US Forest Service would call a “major incident.” The Rim fire would eventually burn more than 250,000 acres, making it the third-largest fire in California history. Ecologists monitoring this section of the Western Sierra were already calling this fire “the Big One.”
I had driven up from Los Angeles, and calling from a truck stop in Modesto, I managed to get in touch with a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) lieutenant named Dave Fish, the commander of a residential inmate camp called Baseline. He grumbled, but said I could tag along.
There were a total of 623 inmates fighting the fire when I arrived, most sleeping in the white tents at the incident base, but Lieutenant Fish had several 17-man crews living at the Baseline camp, just 20 miles down the road from Tuolumne City.
The drive from Tuolumne City to Baseline is gently gorgeous, bringing you down through oak scrub foothills and then out an old country road through gold, rolling ranchland. On the way I saw hand-drawn signs, saying things like, thank u law enforcement + firefighters and your life is worth more than my house.
If I’d had any preconceptions of a correctional institution, my arrival in Baseline camp was disorienting. I drove right through the gates, the camp looking less like a prison than a spread of ranch houses. There was no fence around the perimeter, and while there was a checkpoint at the entrance, it was unmanned and nobody searched me on my way in.
Through the gate there was a koi pond designed, built, and maintained by inmates who slept in bunkhouses arranged around the main lawn—the 17 men on a fire crew sleep together, to build camaraderie. Lieutenant Fish, midsize and extraordinarily officious, met me on the lawn.
Fish, as he’d said to call him, showed me around, and introduced me to an inmate named Washington, an astonishingly humble black guy from San Diego, 32 years old and months away from finishing a 12-year sentence for armed robbery. He spoke so softly that almost nothing he said got picked up by my recorder, and explained that the freedom of the camp surprised him at first.
“When I got here, and there’s no walls?” Washington said. “After a decade?” He, like all the inmates, underwent a qualification process for camp that takes into account the seriousness of his offense and past behavior in the prison system. Murderers, rapists, and, well, arsonists, are excluded. Most of the inmates earn two days off their sentences for every day spent in the camp, but Washington’s judge had stipulated that he serve at least 80 percent of his sentence. “Camp or no camp, man—I’ve spent my entire adult life in prison,” he said. “I’ve never even been to a 21-and-up club.”