Thomas Elias: Firefighting doubletalk: More fodder for government distrust
Many Californians now deeply distrust state government, and with good reason. Start with the Public Utilities Commission, proven to have decided multi-billion-dollar rate cases after lengthy private contacts and email exchanges between commissioners, their staff and utility executives.
Then there’s the state Energy Commission, which handed tens of millions of dollars in “hydrogen highway” grants to a commission consultant who two years ago drew the map of where that money was to be spent, then resigned and formed a company which three months later applied for and got most of the available money.
No member of either commission has been punished for this cronyism and favoritism. Nor have their procedures changed significantly.
Now comes the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, caught in what’s doubletalk at a minimum on whether or not it has for years put violent criminals into situations where they could escape with ease if they chose.
More than 1,400 such prisoners today work on firefighting crews sometimes overseen by officials of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) rather than prison guards.
The current type of “trusty” prisoner has produced an average of nine escapes per year over the last five years, all but one inmate escapee recaptured fairly quickly.
The subject arises because last year’s Proposition 47 converted many drug violations and some other crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, cutting the number of non-violent criminals available for firefighting.
The measure also allowed many former drug-related felons to resume normal lives unplagued by convictions that once put many jobs and other opportunities beyond their reach.
Prison rules long stated that only non-violent criminals could be sent outside prison walls to fight fires. But no more.
The change came to light after public opposition killed a corrections department plan to extend from five years to seven the remaining time allowable for sentences of criminals on firefighting crews.
For sure, in this so-far extremely destructive fire season, work done by teams of convicts has been essential. But it turned out prison officials were untruthful for years about who was on those teams.
Their website said no violent prisoner could serve on the crews.
In pulling back their proposal this fall, department officials let slip the fact that they have long used inmates whose crimes are legally defined as violent.
“Not all violent offenses represent violent behavior by the individual,” Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told a reporter in a classic example of bureaucratic doubletalk.
An example of what he meant, he said, was that robberies involving a mere threat of violence are different from those where victims are physically assaulted.
Never mind psychological or emotional violence from being threatened, sometimes at gunpoint.
It turned out the department’s website long said members of fire crews “must have no history of violent crimes.”
This passage is now excised, and the department reported last month that 1,441 out of 3,732 inmates then in fire camps were convicted of crimes legally defined as violent.
Only doublethink could allow those convicts to be considered non-violent.
Prison system spokesman Bill Sessa insists they may once have been violent, but aren’t anymore. “Having that on our website was a mistake, not an attempt to deceive,” he said. “We look at the very specific circumstances of every inmate before anyone is even allowed to be trained for this.”
Even with the violent criminals, the number of convict firefighters is far down from previous levels of about 4,400, mostly because of a combination of Proposition 47 and prison realignment, which sees many inmates paroled or remanded to county jails in their home areas.
Lowering the prison populace by tens of thousands over just two years created a manpower shortage.
Nevertheless, said Sessa, “It would be ludicrous for us to put a dangerous inmate in that situation.”
The prison system admitted to the Associated Press that inmate firefighters committed hundreds of assaults and batteries, indecent exposures and other crimes over the past 10 years, but later insisted all those incidents were in fire camps, not in surrounding communities or on active fire lines.
Still, the corrections department’s “mistake” in leaving the “no violent criminals” pledge on its website for years after it was no longer in force renders its word unreliable.
This makes at least three demonstrably untrustworthy major state agencies. Should anyone trust the others?
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