On Tuesday, April 23, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to participate in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fire camp program for the period from Jan. 1, 2013, to June 30, 2017. During this period, the county will permit certain eligible county detention inmates to join the state’s fire crew, such as the Bautista camp.

Realignment, a program to decrease California prison overcrowding under an order from the United States Supreme Court, transferred nonserious, nonviolent, and non-sex offenders to serve the balance of their sentences in county jails. The program, which took effect in October 2011, quickly resulted in Riverside County jails reaching maximum inmate populations.

Realignment and consequent overcrowding in county jails triggered a 1993 federal court order mandating Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to release inmates not assigned to a jail bed. County Chief Correctional Deputy Jerry Gutierrez said that nearly 7,000 inmates were released early in 2012 and so far this year, 2,754 have been released early.

The fire camp transfers will not result in a huge shuffling of jail inmates from county to state fire camp responsibility, but it will, over time, create more jail bed space in county jails. It will also help staff up the fire camps, which have seen decreases in available prisoners because of transfer of inmates from state prisons to county jails. “It’s one more tool we have to try,” Gutierrez said. “We’re constantly looking at head count, since we’re operating jails at maximum capacity.”

Gutierrez said there are currently 40 to 42 county inmates eligible for the program based on the nature of their convictions and sentences. “They also have to want to do the program and must pass a physical since the fire work is labor intensive,” he said. “And they have to have a year to three years remaining on their sentences because there is significant training involved. They’ll have to go to a mini fire academy.”

The county pays $46.19 per day per inmate to the state to cover their housing, food and medical, paid from AB 109 realignment funds the state gives the county,

Gutierrez anticipates inmate transfers could begin in early to mid June of this year. The state must also approve the plan for the transfers, a process Gutierrez said would take two to three weeks.

County inmates in the fire program would be housed at the Bautista and Oak Glen camps. When not assisting in fire fighting, fire contract inmates clear brush and fallen trees, stockpile sandbags, perform road and park maintenance, restore historical structures and other ameliorative actions.