Prisoners serve soft time: Hardworking firefighters lead campus-like life at SCC

Union Democrat staff /

Baseline Camp, a part of Sierra Conservation Center, the state lockup outside Jamestown, is to prison life what the Saint Francis Hotel is to a motor lodge.

There, on any given day, inmates, when not working, are free to roam yards complete with a koi-inhabited pond and barbecue pits, are fed three home-style meals a day and have access to a variety of activities like woodshop, badminton and handball.

There are also two television rooms, a canteen for inmates to purchase snacks, and on Tuesday fresh-baked chocolate cookies in their chow hall.

More like a summer camp, there are no fences or gates. But then again, who would want to escape?

California Department of Corrections says the intent is to provide the inmates with real-world job skills while safely housing inmates away from society.

An "absolute privilege" is the way prison spokesman Lt. Robert Kelsey describes life at Baseline versus a normal prison setting.

Make no mistake: The work done by Baseline crews can be grueling. They're called out to major fires to cut fire lines, and work in 24-hour shifts.

According to the CDC, the 4,300 inmate firefighters who live in the state's fire camps like Baseline account for about half of the state workforce available to fight wildland fires.

It's also estimated that inmate fire crews save taxpayers about $100 million a year because they aren't paid normal wages and receive no benefits, CDC spokesman Bill Sessa said.

The inmates receive 16 cents an hour and $1 an hour extra for responding to fires, Kelsey said. According to CDC, inmates are also paid $2.56 per day for working as skilled mechanics, clerks, cooks, plumbers, welders, carpenters, and electricians.

Kelsey said the money paid to inmate labor versus pensioned state and county firefighters amounted to a "huge" savings to the taxpayer.

For the complete story, see the Sept. 4, 2014, edition of The Union Democrat.

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