Camp flap causes stir
Powerless to make changes to the already-inked agreement, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors probed state officials to reveal details about Thursday afternoon’s switch of inmates at Washington Ridge Conservation Camp.
The meeting was called to address neighborhood concerns about the switch from California Youth Authority wards – young men aged 18-25 – to California Department of Correction inmates, who are older, at the 80-acre camp that lies northeast of Nevada City.
Most of the new inmates will be in place by the beginning of fire season, said Tony Clarabut, regional chief of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protections.
The camp was opened in 1960 to provide fire protection.
In the last few years, however, the Youth Authority has suffered declining numbers and housed youths convicted of increasingly serious crimes.
Last year, Washington Ridge only provided two firefighting crews, three less than needed to protect Nevada County, Clarabut said.
To provide firefighters, year-round volunteers and save money, state officials worked out a deal to use Department of Corrections inmates, of which there are plenty, instead of young adults.
The agreement was not announced until Jan. 10, when it was included in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal.
Several Supervisors and many neighbors who attended the several hour meeting entered it with suspicions and doubts about the switch, which was finalized behind closed doors in Sacramento early this year.
“I came into this process with limited knowledge,” Supervisor John Spencer said. “I have a better feeling about it now.”
At the meeting, two men who had worked with both Youth Authority and Department of Corrections workers, Dan Perkins and Penn Valley resident Bill Murdock, testified that adult inmates present less of a risk than their younger counterparts.
Former guard Perkins described the youth as “squirrelier” than the adults.
Neighbor Alan Gratzer, who said he was initially quite concerned, said he devoted three days to researching the reaction of other communities across the state to their neighborhood Department of Corrections camps.
“I came away feeling very positive,” Gratzer said.
Department of Corrections camps official John Peck assured the supervisors that inmates convicted of a series of violent crimes – including murder, rape and arson – would not be admitted to the camp.
Most inmates will be serving time for drug or property crimes, Peck said.
In contrast, violent youths had previously been housed at the camp, a Youth Authority spokeswoman said.
Inmates would be closely monitored and screened and placed in prison if they violate any camp rules, Peck said.
He said the camp will have only one or two guards at night, a ratio that has worked at the Department of Corrections’ 40 other camps.
The facility does not, and will not, have a fence, Peck said.
In addition, it would not be feasible to pay for, or find, 100 nonincarcerated firefighting trainees, Clarabut said.
Some neighbors, however, remain concerned about the facility, which they fear could become a full-fledged prison.
That would not be possible, Clarabut said, but the CDF is operating the facility through an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. The CDF owns the physical improvements at the camp but the Forest Service owns the land.
The secrecy of the decision to switch inmates at the camp remains a point of contention for the neighbors and the supervisors.
Supervisor Ted Owens suggested the board inform the Department of Corrections and other state agencies that making decisions without informing affected communities was not acceptable.
The Supervisors agreed to send a letter voicing their concerns to the involved agencies.
In addition, Clarabut said he would make a report to the board at the end of fire season. The facility will also provide monthly population statistics to the Sheriff’s Department.
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