From Inside the Prison Fire Camp in the US

Published August 21, 2019

From Inside the Prison Fire Camp in the US

Well of course the prison system really doesn’t help anyone. Depending on how much time you’re doing and where your at, they have programs you can sign up for. Like, for work, social, and hobby programs. That doesn’t mean they allow all inmates. Plus the programs aren’t well funded.

All the jobs they give you in county and prisons are just to maintain the place. All they really have to pay for is the guards and doctors and dentists. They don’t seem like they know what they are doing, or they just don’t care. Inmates clean, cook, serve, maintain pigs cars and maintain the building. Inmates do everything.

The average pay in prison is 9 cents an hour. Depending on your job, you can get a few more cents. In county not everybody works. Only the people who been sentence to do their time in county jail. Or people who been there a while and have good behavior.

Once you been sentenced to prison, they send you to reception. Reception is a prison but only temporary. Different counties go to different receptions. Because its temporary not everyone works, only if you been there for more then 6 months. If you do work, they have you working in the kitchen, cooking and serving. Another job is working in laundry.

Reception is where you wait to talk to a counselor so they can tell you what prison you will do the rest of your time at. Also well you are there, they make you take a math and English test. They give you a different tests depending on the grade you went up to. That determines if they’re going to put you to work or school, when you get to where you’re going.

I was able to go to firecamp. To be eligible for camp you have to have less than 5 years, non violent crime, no escape attempts and, at least level 2 points. Depending on your crime and, how many times you been to prison, you get more points. The more points you have, the higher yard you go to. The level 3 and 4 yards have higher security.

I got lucky because I had level 3 points, but barely border line. I ask to go to fire camp because I heard you can get your time cut to less then half. I wasn’t eligible, but depending on your charges and if you’re already doing only half of your time, they will cut it more when you get to camp reception. Nobody does 100% of their time. Some do 85% and some do half. It depends on your crime. I had 85% and that doesn’t go down at camp. Because it was fire season and my first time going to prison, they let me go to camp. I say I’m lucky because the level 3 yard I was suppose to go to was what the inmates call “a war zone” because of the inmate politics. It’s pretty much a guarantee to catch more time and, or, get badly hurt.

Anyway, when you get accepted to camp, they send you to another prison. That prison is basically another reception, but for camp. You are there until they send you to another prison next door, to start your fire training. While I was there they had me work in the kitchen. All I would do is serve food for dinner. They would have us wait in the chow hall for 4 hours until dinner. We would just be hanging out playing cards most of the time. Once it was time for dinner, we would set up, then serve the food, then clean up after. To serve and clean would take us 3 hours and that’s all we would get payed for. They payed me 9 cents an hour. We would also get 2 days off. It was cool because we would sneak food back to our dorms. The money they gave us would go into an account called your books. People can also put money on your books from the streets. If you owed restitution (to a victim) they would tax half of what went into your books until its payed. The money on our books is how we went to the store and bought packages from catalogs. We would go to store once a month and was able to order packages once every 6 months. At store you can buy food, hygiene, paper, and other basic items.

You can order packages from 5 different catalogs. You can get better food, hygiene, radios, CD players clothes and, bunch of other things. Store and packages are street prices or more, so 9 cents really doesn’t help. Another way to make money is by selling drugs, tobacco, or if you have a skill like drawing, making things or even having nice hand writing.You can have people put money on your books or in pay pal. Most of the time we would use food and hygiene as currency.

When you get sent to fire training, the only time you work is when you’ve finished your training but it could get delayed. For example, when I finished I had to go to dental so they had me working in the kitchen until I could catch the next bus to camp. All medical and dental is done at the prison. They use the inmates from the prison next door as the regular workers. For the training we would do physical training and book work.

Not everyone who goes to camp fights fire. Some have other jobs around the camp. Again inmates do everything. When you get to camp they assign you to a fire crew. You can have up to 12 people on a crew. They were all mixed races and prison gangs, who in other places we would have to fight on sight. That was a cool thing about camp, it kinda broke down the barriers. They even dormed you with your crew and your bunky could be another race or part of another prison gang.

When we weren’t on fires we would work Monday through Friday, doing jobs around the county you’re in. I was sent to a northern camp. The first camp I went to, we would clean around the city and cut down trees. I was only there for 3 months. My captain lied and said I was asleep on the fire. Not true, but the pigs won’t listen to what you gotta say. No joke, I wouldn’t be surprised if that captain was part of some fascist group. The captains were just people from regular fire crews.

After that they sent me to another camp an hour away from the Oregon border. At that camp we would put up barbwire fences on people’s property for their animals. We would also cut down juniper trees from people’s properties and clean up around the city. The juniper trees are like weeds, they grow fast and everywhere. We would cut them down in the mountains, so we had to hike to them. They made you hike a lot to stay ready for camp.

After we cut them down we would line them up and pile it. In the winter we would burn them. That’s the only thing that would keep you warm. Over there it would get down to 10 degrees and snow a lot. All we had to wear was jeans, long sleeves and an under shirt, also thermals, a beanie and a jacket, but that really didn’t help. The snow would get so high that you would fall through the piles you made or other fallen trees. For sure by the end of the day your hands and feet would be hurting from them being wet and cold.

Every camp would only pay the crew a dollar a day. 2 guys out of the crew would get a paid a few cents more. One is the swamper, his job was to carry the medical bag and make sure everything was put away after the job. On fires he would be the last in line making sure the line was good. The other is the crew leader. He was like the captain’s right hand man. He would sit in the front of the truck with the captain. The captain would give him instructions to tell us. Some of the crew leaders would forget that they were inmates and start acting like they were captains or pigs. Its funny too because usually just the nazis acted like that. These guys really believed in all that and had nazi tattoos.

When you’re on a fire, you get paid a dollar an hour plus day pay. From the time you get called to a fire, from the time you get back to camp, you get a dollar. Sometimes you would get sent to a big fire with a bunch of different camps and be gone for a month or longer. If it was a big fire and we had to travel far, we would sleep at another camp close by. Or the county would set up a camp at a fairground or something.

One camp would be on the mountain for 24 hours. After that 24 hours we would go back to the staging camp to shower, eat, then hangout and sleep. Another camp would take out place and we would just keep rotating until the fire was out. Sometimes we would be on the mountain for 48 hours.

Inmates do everything on the fire. All the people in yellow that you see on the news are just there for the cameras. Or they get the less dangerous and easy tasks. Usually once we get there, they leave.

What we mainly do is put fire lines around the fire. All that is, is a 4 to 10 foot wide dirt trail, to stop the fire from spreading. On the news when they say that the fire is 50 percent contained, for example, that just means there is fire line around 50 percent of the fire. You have to watch out too because the fire can jump the line and catch the other side on fire and trap us. A few times we would have to run out because the fire jumped the line.

We would work right up against the fire. To make a line we have 2 saw teams that start the path. Then guys with axes knocked out all the stumps. Then guys with rake-like tools would clear the path. The swamper would be in the back and the crew captain would either be part of the saw team or behind the swamper with another radio. We could be doing that all day and night. Bulldozers also made the fire line but they were very limited to where they could go, so we pretty much always did it.

We would also do a mop up. Mop up is where you walk through an area that fire already went through. There are 2 types of mop ups, a clean mop up and a dirty mop up. A clean mop up is where the fire went through and burned everything. A dirty mop up is when it didn’t burn everything and things can catch on fire. That’s dangerous because even though the fire passed everything is still hot and coals are everywhere. So everything that didn’t burn can catch on fire and start another big fire with us in the middle.

For mop up we just walked around looking for coals and little things on fire. We had water bladders to but them out or just whacked it with our tools. One time we were doing a dirty mop and the area caught on fire again. We were on the side of a mountain hiding in bushes smoking and we hear our captain yelling. I though we got caught but he started pointing at something then we hear a loud roar sound. A fire started again right next to us and we had to run to a clearing we made. Good thing the fire didn’t surround us. If we did get caught in a fire we had like a thick reflective emergency blanket to throw over us. Still you can suffocate and burn inside of it.

They would give us MRE’s to eat and bags of snacks. If we were able to sleep we would just sleep on the dirt, freezing. Most of the time we would be working that whole 24 hours, either hiking, cutting line, mopping up or just hanging out on the line making sure the fire didn’t jump it.

Being on the fires was really tiring and hard work, but it was cool seeing everything on fire. And sometimes the locals would give us weed or tobacco. They knew we were inmates. When I only had 6 months left of my time, they took me off a crew and gave me a job as a sewer. I would work in a building with 10 other guys. I would sew saw covers, patch cloths or make random things for the camp. I only got payed a dollar a day still. The other guys had different jobs. One was a welder, 3 mechanics, one guy would get fire gear ready for the new guys. Some would do woodwork for the camp. When you got 2 weeks left till your release, they send you back to the prison or another camp. They don’t have you working though.

Prison doesn’t help anyone. The only people who try to help you and want you to do better are the people you’re in there with.