The State Department of Corrections has announced it has signed a contract with San Bernardino County allowing more long term jailed felons the chance to serve out sentences at one of the state’s minimum security conservation fire camps. Department spokesperson Bill Sessa said in a phone interview that there are many perks including earning time off sentences.
The Oak Glen Conservation (Fire) Camp was the first such facility and with a prison population of 160 is the largest among 43 in the state. The site was established 90 years ago by the former San Bernardino County Forestry Department. Sessa explained the plan is part of new legislation aimed to reduce the prison population. “People are not going to be let out of prison early and we are not lowering our standards. No one with a pattern of violent behavior is accepted. “You get one chance. If you are disruptive in any form, you are returned to an electronically fenced facility.”
Prisoners are supervised by California Department of Forestry and Fire (CalFire) captains while performing duties outside the camp and inside the camp are under the direction of state correction officers. An informal poll showed most residents of Mentone, Yucaipa, and Beaumont did not know they live within a few miles of a minimum security state prison.
In 1928, prison honor crews from Oak Glen were partly responsible for building the highways through the Inland Empire. Two years later, those felons worked along side San Bernardino County Forestry workers to build new paved roads leading up to Oak Glen, through Beaumont into Idyllwild. Prison work crews provided the labor for county parks, flood control, and water main systems.
According to Copley News Service, the Oak Glen site has been under various county, state and federal jurisdictions. It was structured in 1933 under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps federal jobs program. President Lyndon Johnson then picked the pre-World War II styled Oak Glen camp to be the location of a pilot training program. It was part of Johnson’s 1963 Anti-Poverty Act geared for high school dropouts, with the Riverside County Schools designated the local funding source.
President Richard Nixon’s administration followed by sponsoring measures to revert Oak Glen back to a penal institution. By 1972 it was under control of the California Youth Authority for juvenile offenders and for a while was a Job Corp Conservation Center. Through the 1980’s, the state financed millions to upgarde the Oak Glen Conservation camp.
According to state sources and the late ABC reporter Bob Banfield, the Oak Glen Conservation (Fire) Camp has provided inmate labor since 1949 and was established in its current form in 1990. Sessa advised there are semantic and technical issues when reviewing those enrolling in fire camps. “There might be those who the penal code defines as violent with violent convictions but have earned a lower security status through good behavior.”
Sessa points out that those in prison fire camps don’t have the same backgrounds as the general civilian population. “Those who have long rivalries have to put those differences aside. Rival gangs must learn to work side by side,” said Sessa. “They must learn to take orders, learn to compromise, and to be disciplined.” He adds that it is not a vocational program, yet those released say they have learned personal skills.
Sessa described camp inmates as performers of physical work, divided into crews of 15. During a fire, they carry 50 pounds of supplies on their back while cutting containment lines. But are the highest paid of all inmates, earning $2 per hour and an extra dollar per hour while fighting a fire. “Plus, they get a day-for-day off their sentence. During the time on a fire line, they get two days off their sentence for each day worked.” Sessa says inmates also get additional days off their sentence for good behavior as mandated by the state.
According to the Department of Corrections there is no incentive for inmates to escape. Although no figures were available regarding the number of escapes from Oak Glen, statistics from the state say that 99 percent of all offenders who have left an adult institution or community-based program without permission have been apprehended. The official statement is that “Oak Glen Conservation Camp has never been a problem in the community.”
Bob Banfield did report about a 2008 escape from Oak Glen Conservation Camp when two inmates got free and one broke into the home of a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy, took two guns, his uniform, and his vehicle. He was caught early the next morning in Rancho Cucamonga. Two more reported escapes occurred in 2012 and 2014 but in both cases the inmates were returned without incident.
A report provided by the Environmental Working Group alleges that the Oak Glen camp received a violation of its own in 2007 when the EPA found its drinking water exceeded the maximum levels of coliform. The Group claimed the California Department of Public Health would not respond when asked for updated test data.