California officials are considering allowing inmates with violent backgrounds to work outside prison walls fighting wildfires, and the idea is generating concerns about public safety. The state has about 3,800 inmate firefighters with no history of violent crimes. But that's down from about 4,400 in previous years, so prison officials are looking for ways to add inmates to firefighting duties. Starting next year, the corrections department is proposing adding inmates convicted of violent offenses if their security classification level has been reduced after years of good behavior. Officials tell the AP they're also seeking to allow inmates who have up to seven years left on their sentences instead of the current five.
Arsonists, kidnappers, sex offenders, gang affiliates, and those serving life sentences for murder and other crimes would still be excluded. A 10-year tally on criminal behavior by inmates assigned to firefighting camps shows firefighters aren't immune to the violent behavior found in higher-security prisons, though officials say the rate of such occurrences is much lower. Figures from 2005-2014 show that there was a total of 402 assaults or batteries on fellow inmates, 43 assaults or batteries of staff, and 16 incidents that could be classed as riots. Possession of drugs and cellphones among firefighters peaked in 2013 with nearly 1,100 incidents of discipline for drug possession and nearly 1,000 for cellphones. (Three Alcatraz escapees may still be alive.)