Front-line felons: Colorado prison inmates fight wildfires for $6 a day

The firefighters awaken by 4:30 a.m. The forest is dark, but even here, miles from the blaze, they can smell smoke.

There are 20 on this team, the youngest 23, the oldest 46. They have worked together since late last year. They eat breakfast at their campsite, then head to a dawn briefing with the other crews working the fire. They go over maps and roads and the day’s weather forecast, and by 8 a.m., they’ll have strapped into gear and loaded up for what could be a two-hour hike. They lug chainsaws and axes, 40-pound water bags and 50-pound backpacks up to wherever they’ve been assigned, then spend the day clearing brush and building fire lines — hot, brutal work.

Twelve hours later, they will hike back to camp and sleep for about six hours, then get up and do the same thing the next day, and the day after that, for up to two weeks at a time.

When their deployment is done, they return to Cañon City and the place they have been living for past months or years — a prison cell in a small, minimum-security building amid a sprawling 5,700-acre state penitentiary campus.

‘Every day is huge’

The firefighters are volunteers with the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT), a 16-year-old program operated by the Colorado Department of Corrections. Hundreds of inmates apply every year to take part, with crew bosses selecting about 25 firefighters for each of the three SWIFT teams: Cañon City, Buena Vista and Rifle. All are men, all are felons, all are non-violent offenders — many were convicted of drug charges — and all are eligible for parole in no more than three years. With few exceptions, they’re between the ages of 19 and 50.

The SWIFT program was created following the 1998 passage of Colorado Inmate Disaster Relief legislation, which sought to create a “labor pool to respond safely to fight forest fires, help with flood relief, and assist in the prevention of natural or man-made disasters.” In 2002, SWIFT teams were deployed for the first time, fighting nine fires that season. The last two years they’ve been on 38 and 40 fires, respectively, and they’re up to 23 this year so far.

“They’re spot-on, dialed-in,” says James Cravener, a captain at North-West Fire Protection District in Fairplay. “I didn’t even know they were an inmate crew until somebody pointed it out. I didn’t see any difference between them and a regular crew.”

Other states, including Washington and California, have similar programs for inmates. In California, there are 4,000 inmates on fire crews, The New York Times reported.

The program draws both praise and criticism. Inmates say it gives them a sense of purpose, that it restores their dignity and sense of belonging.

“The shame of being a prisoner and doing wrong melts away,” Cañon City inmate and SWIFT team member Alex Smitley says.

The state points to huge cost savings. Andrew Dalton, the SWIFT program manager, says the three crews have already saved Colorado taxpayers $772,000 this year.

That savings comes largely because prison inmates earn pennies per day. According to Mark Fairbairn, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Corrections, pay for SWIFT inmates starts at $0.86 per day, then goes up to $1.42 per day for non-field days and $6 per day for days they’re out working a fire.

Six bucks for a day on a fire comes out to about 40 cents per grueling hour of work. Those paltry wages are high compared to those for other forms of prison labor. In Colorado, inmates working on laundry or food service may make as little as 60 cents per day.

Low-wage prison jobs are common across the country, thanks to an exemption in the 13th Amendment that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. In prison, some jobs are forced and other workers, like those on SWIFT, do so voluntarily. But the pay is always negligible.

“It’s pretty much slave labor,” says Harold Johnson, a former captain with the Denver Fire Department. “You have people working for nothing. Of course, they’d say it’s volunteering. But we know why they’re doing it: to get out of that cage, to do something that’s meaningful, to be a part of a team, for the mental thing of being a good person. They don’t have to do it, so that’s where the penal system will tell you it’s not slave labor.”

Prison workers  in at least 17 U.S. states plan to protest between now and Sept. 9, on the anniversary of the Attica prison riot, Vox reported. They are expected to engage in work strikes and hunger strikes, among other demonstrations. No such actions have so far been confirmed in Colorado, and Fairbairn said the state Department of Corrections is not aware of any protest by laborers.

If the pay for volunteer firefighting is an issue, none of the eight SWIFT firefighters The Colorado Independent interviewed last week dwelled on it. Instead, they pointed to the fact that each receive one day off their sentences for every day they’re in the field. That can add up: the three squads around the state work about 40 wildfires every season, usually for many days at a time. One inmate earned 186 days off his sentence over a 14-month span, says crew boss Ted McDowell, a Cañon City native who directs the team.

Lawrence Bolton, 36, set himself a goal of getting out of prison in time to celebrate the birthdays of his son and grandmother in February, and he’s on track to meet it.

“For me, every day is huge,” he says. “Every day I get taken off my sentence is a day I’m not a statistic, a day I get to spend with my kids and my grandmother. You can’t put a price on that.”

Losing the ‘prison mentality’

In June, the Cañon City crew was deployed to the Weston Pass Fire, a 13,000-acre blaze a few miles from Fairplay. SWIFT firefighters are whipped into excellent physical condition — some of the fitness standards they must meet are more rigorous than those for the Navy SEALs — and are trained to be fully capable wildland firefighters.

The Weston Pass Fire was their first time laying down a fire line as a group, and soon after arriving on scene, they were tasked with protecting three homes that were at risk of burning.

“We saved those first three houses right off the bat,” Smitley said. “We were pumped up.”

The next day, they had another first, as they were thrust into an area with 50-foot flames and so much smoke they couldn’t see each other. These are the kinds of conditions that can kill firefighters, who sometimes have such low visibility that they burn alive, or are crushed by blazing trees they never see coming, or crash their vehicles on roads they can’t make out. Six wildland firefighters have died in Colorado this season. None were with SWIFT, but that may have more to do with luck than anything else.

Inmate firefighter Lawrence Bolton works on Aug. 15 in the chainsaw shop. (Photo by Alex Burness)

John Delira-Alires, 35, an inmate squad boss, beams with pride as he and his teammates describe the rush they felt at Weston Pass. For Delira-Alires, that assignment was also deeply personal. He says his aunt Patsy owns 107 acres in the fire zone. He found himself working on a line to protect that very property.

He and the other SWIFT crew members say that, among other things, the program has taught them to value themselves.

“I had a messed-up thinking before — gangbanging, prison, being a dope boy. The kind of work that we do has squashed that stuff out,” Delira-Alires says.

The line he helped cut near his aunt’s house helped save it. This led to an unfamiliar feeling for Delira-Alires, a heavily tattooed man who comes from a long line of military members.

“My mom said that a lot my aunties and uncles were proud of me,” he said.

His teammates say they can relate.

“It’s a new awakening within yourself,” says Joredan Quigley, 38. “All of us were doing something negative in the community. You lose yourself completely. The light within you shuts off. You come and do this and see the way the community sees you and you go from the person the community wanted in jail to the person the community wants to see.”

“Before I was selfish, all about myself, committing crimes — nothing major, but I was a drug addict supporting my habit,” says Bolton. “Before I was a taker. Now I’m trying to be the giver.”

Adds Smitley, “The program teaches you to lose the prison mentality of ‘take care of yourself, and who cares what happens to the other guy.’

“It teaches that the guy next to me may be able to help me, and I may be able to help him. Just like it is out there in the real world. You learn to be able to want to help.”

Crew boss McDowell, reclining inside of an office plastered with Broncos memorabilia, tells the story about a time his crew was driving through a town in Garfield County after 10 days of firefighting. A girl and her mom flagged them down and gave them, as thank-you tokens, cupcakes and Klondike bars and cold drinks.

“Half these guys, as hard and tough as they think they are, they melted,” McDowell says. “These guys come in with a chip on their shoulder and they get out there and they’re treated like a human being, respected like any other firefighter that’s out there.”

Outside McDowell’s office at the Cañon City prison hangs a sign someone gave them that reads “Thank You Cañon City Firefighters.” That basic gesture of appreciation is, for these inmates, priceless.

Shut out

What SWIFT has given these men, society threatens to take.

When they get out of prison, they cannot work for most fire departments.

No state law mandates this, but in most cases convicts cannot become emergency medical technicians, and without EMT certifications, they can’t work for urban fire departments. If they want to use the skills they’ve acquired while incarcerated to build careers post-release, they can either try to get on one of the handful of Colorado wildland crews that hire ex-convicts, volunteer with one of those crews or, more likely, drop out of the field altogether.

“What is it saying about a person’s life, that while you’re incarcerated you can do one of the most dangerous jobs in America and put your life at risk, and do so for dollars a day,” says Hassan Latif, who runs the Aurora-based Second Chance Center, which works with people reentering society after jail and prison, “and then when you get home, because of that conviction, that mark on your life, you’re not qualified or worthy of putting your life at risk again to save the homes of your neighbors?”

Without work, it’s hard to find housing. According to a new report from the Prison Policy Institute, there are 5 million formerly incarcerated people in the US, and they are all about 10 times more likely than the general public to be homeless.

Pat Steadman, a former state senator for Denver and parts of the metro area, helped author a bill in 2013 to allow for exceptions for some ex-cons seeking licenses in various fields, from nursing to real estate. During his time in the legislature, he became the unofficial go-to on matters of reentry for the formerly incarcerated. There are ways, in theory, that this population can find opportunity fighting fires, but they’re up against restrictive rules and enormous stigma.

“My personal opinion is that people are lazy and it’s really easy to discriminate against felons and not go any further or think any harder or take a chance. It’s easier to not give them a chance. That’s my theory. Even though we pass laws to try to help people get around these barriers, (hiring authorities) would rather just discriminate, or make assumptions about people,” he said.

Steadman adds: “For all the prestige and opportunity that we build up with SWIFT, it’s still kind of a dead-end pass for people when they get out, because of the discrimination people with criminal histories face.”

James Cravener, the fire captain in Fairplay, says that’s not fair.

“I think that if they pay their dues and they learn these skills that can be applied in the real world after they’ve served, I think they should be allowed,” he adds. “Everybody makes mistakes. If they can rebound from them and be better because of it, then more power to them.”

Beyond the question of fairness, there’s also a question of practicality.

The demand for firefighters is primed to increase dramatically in the American West in coming years. The warming climate means wildfires are getting more common, and so, naturally, these events will require more people fighting them.

In 2015, wildfires eclipsed 10 million acres of total coverage in the U.S. for the first time. By 2040, according to Michael Kodas, associate director at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, American wildfires are projected to cover 20 million acres.

The very existence of SWIFT, Harold Johnson says, speaks to the need, “We don’t have enough (firefighters), so who can we use to do this?”

The intense training, the 2 a.m. dispatches, the 4:30 wake-ups, the two-hour hikes, the 12-hour workdays — none of it has amounted to more than a few dollars, and none of it is likely to lead to a full-time job. But, the firefighters say, it has created a brotherhood that will last after they have left prison behind.

“I don’t expect to go out to eat every day with these guys,” Smitley says, “but I’ll check in: ‘Are you doing good? Staying straight?’ They can always call me. ‘Cause let’s not ever go back to prison.”

For now, they serve their time. They wait. When their next call does inevitably come — sometimes that happens in the dead of night — they pile into two yellow trucks, loaded with axes and chainsaws and snacks and helmets, and they drive toward the fire.

 

Alex cut his teeth as the Boulder Daily Camera's city hall reporter and, prior to that, as an education reporter at the Loveland Reporter-Herald. He's interested in city issues, governance and homelessness, and he once spent two months investigating the suspicious death of a backyard rooster. Alex is a D.C. native who's lived in Illinois, Chile and now Denver.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a proud mother of one of these fire fighters and I know it has changed my son. The bond they all have and each and everyone of them putting that gang life behind them and working side by side with the ones that they had beef with says alot about each one of these inmates. Not just for these inmates but all inmates I believe if you can prove yourself in prison and work well at what you did then you should be able to do that out in the real world less offenders going back and that’s what we need with our jails and prisons at their highest with inmates. It’s time for us to start standing behind our love ones and support them not all inmates are bad they made bad choices stop holding their past behind them they paid for their crime now let them be just like everyone else a working citizen.

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