‘They Have Nowhere To Run’: Inmate Families, Advocates Push for Prisoner Release as California Wildfires Engulf State

Jerri-Lynn here. I share this Common Dreams post on inmates who are currently still confined to prisons that lie directly in the path of California wildfires for two reasons. First, there’s been far too little attention devoted to the plight of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And second, I thought the commentariat might appreciate a chance to discuss the wildfires raging across California. They’re very much at the top of my mind, especially after telephone calls to two close friends from my MIT days who’ve settled and made their lives in California. They’e each located  in places where they are at least at present safe, but they both attested to the horrible air quality. I also checked in via messages with another close friend who although he no longer lives there, has family who does, and hails from Atascadero.

I should point out one reason the wildfires are raging out of control is that in the past California has relied heavily on prison labor to fight its fires. Now, some prisoners have been furloughed, whereas others are either sick or isolated due to COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities, so they cannot fight the current fires.

Yes we’re talking inmates. Who’ve been sentenced according to our present legal procedures to serve time to pay their debt to society. But most of them were not sentenced to death. And even those who were would not have been executed using a lethal pathogen, nor smothered nor burned to death. For another news report, please look at this Mercury News link:  ‘No one deserves conditions like this’: Fires present health risks, prompt pleas to evacuate nearby state prisons. And for some of Naked Capitalism’s previous coverage, see  here and here.

By Lisa Newcomb, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams

As wildfires rage in California, advocates are pushing for Gov. Gavin Newsom to evacuate prisons in the line of the fires.

“It’s disaster on top of disaster on top of disaster,” Kirsten Roehler, whose 78-year-old father, Fred Roehler, is imprisoned in Lancaster, California, toldThe Guardian.

The 2020 wildfire season is especially difficult for multiple reasons, including record high temperatures and extreme weather and, of course, Covid-19.

Flames burned through more than 770,000 acres in the Golden State within just one week, the Washington Post reported Friday, leaving five people dead and air quality continually decreasing. Some of the state’s prisons are located in areas under evacuation orders, including the California Medical Facility (CMF) and Solano State Prison, which are outside of Vacaville, California.

“They are breathing in fire and smoke, and they have nowhere to run,” Sophia Murillo, 39, whose brother is incarcerated at CMF in Vacaville told The Guardian. “Everyone has evacuated but they were left there in prison. Are they going to wait until the last minute to get them out?”

Civil rights advocates have called on the governor to release offenders since the Covid-19 outbreak began ravaging prison populations and staff throughout the United States. Newsom and other governors have released thousands of prisoners in light of the pandemic, but with the fires raging closer and closer to physical prison structures, the calls for more action are growing.

In Vacaville, instead of releasing the nonviolent inmates, officials moved 80 prisoners “to sleep in outdoor tents instead of indoor cells” in a move meant to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in its facility, The Guardian reported. But the wildfires have damaged air quality, prompting authorities to move the inmates back inside.

“I’m furious at the incompetence and severe inhumanity of this,” Kate Chatfield, policy director with the Justice Collaborative, a group that fights mass incarceration, told The Guardian. “Covid is allowed to rage through the prison system and kill people, and then they have tent hospitals set up … and now with wildfires, they take down the tents and put these people back in the Covid-infected building?”

In lieu of evacuating the Solano State Prison, authorities Thursday issued N95 masks to inmates and staff. Aaron Francis, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), told the Guardian Thursday that officials were monitoring the Vacaville fires but that the two prisons were “not in immediate danger” and had no current orders to evacuate.

“It shouldn’t come down to [Covid-19], uncontrollable fires, earthquakes, or other major crises for us to start releasing people,” Adbab Khan, founder of Re:Store Justice, a prisoner advocacy organization tweeted Friday. “Mass incarceration is the disaster.”

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  1. Fern

    And more dry lightening forecast starting Sunday. Went from imprisoned in the house and yard due to covid to being imprisoned in the small study with the door and windows closed, towel under the door and a box fan with a furnace filter taped over it running. It’s been unusually warm and no one has air conditioning in our climate so it gets incredibly stuffy. The N95 masks that we usually wear during the new age of late summer and autumn
    holocausts are, of course, not available. Neighborhoods are burning down nearby, everyone has their emergency bags packed and basically it feels like the end of times here in the East Bay.

    1. Ian Ollmann

      Similar experience here. We are fortunate to have put in some survivability measures. From long experience with smoky days from fires 50 miles off, we have a bunch of air purifiers that generally keep the air in the house clear even when it is a smokehouse outside. If you are new to California, pick several of those up, if you can still find them in stores. Otherwise, wait until November when supply returns.

      We also took action when it became clear that PG&E was going to go bankrupt due to excessive liability for the Paradise fires. They started talking about cutting power to avoid excess liability in the future. It was clear they would take their bankruptcy from years of infrastructure underinvestment out on us. So we put in solar and some home batteries. We’ve been feeling pretty smug as we’ve avoided 165 hours of outage over 27 events in the last year.

      Unfortunately, that has started to unravel with the added pressures of COVID (can’t go to the mall for A/C), a unusually large and prolonged heatwave and wild fire on top of that. Normally we open the windows to take advantage of cool air blowing in from the ocean at night to cool off the house during a heatwave, and close them up during the day. However since it has been toxically smoky some evenings, we can’t do that and the house just heats up and up! We had one day when the house was 95 degrees by evening. I was just thinking, “checkmate!”

      Maybe next year we will be equipped with air conditioning or maybe just a fan with a hepa filter to blow in air from the outside, but so far it’s been ++unfun. Top that off with several days of hard work in the yard hacking back vegetation to help avert loss of house due to wildfire, packing up for possible evacuation, and making sure that through all this stuff the kids stay on top of their schoolwork in the 95 degree smoke with frequent power outages and dodgy internet, and it has been tough to concentrate on what pays the bills, I can tell you!

      We’ll try to do better next fire season. I’m thinking starlink for robust internet and ground source heat pump for A/C. I’m sure it won’t do a thing for earthquake or mudslides, though, which at this rate can’t be far off. We’ll survive those, if we are fortunate. All and all, mostly I’ll feel like we’ve turned a corner if we can just manage to unelect Trump In November. We can put this nonsense behinds us. It will be huge relief and make for a merry holiday season.

    2. Joe Well

      I can’t imagine what that feels like.

      As for the masks, I just bought some N95 masks from the company profiled in this Rolling Stone article. They arrived within a week.

      They are not rigid (unlike the masks in the article image) so they stick to my face, which is not great in this balmy summer weather. They also make it really hard to breathe if I talk or walk too much, but I suppose that means they are working. I am going to use the basic surgical masks for outdoor places like farmer’s markets or crowded sidewalks, and keep these for indoor use.

  2. upstater

    I oppose “cruel and unusual” punishment. But as the father of a daughter that was killed by a person in what was judged as a “nonviolent crime”, I unequivocally oppose releasing inmates for COVID, wildfires or whatever… 2 people were killed by him and 9 years incarceration isn’t enough, IMO.

    For all these do-gooders that are concerned, perhaps there should be an “adopt an inmate” program where they can bring one or more of these guys into their own home and provide a caring and loving environment for the duration of the pandemic.

    Until such time that there is a job guarantee and the expectation that able bodied people work instead of drink and do drugs antisocial behavior is expected.

      1. Alex Cox

        Sorry, too, but I’m a volunteer firefighter in Southern Oregon and we cannot cope without prison based firefighters.

        Prison firefighters are non-violent offenders who make up as much as 40% of the wildland force. We depend on them.

        It would be great if all firefighters were well paid professionals with healthcare and pensions. But this is not the case.

  3. The Rev Kev

    I suspect that what we are seeing is more a matter of incompetence. An inability of getting stuff done. New Orleans set the standard here. Note from one of the links-

    ‘Many of the men held at jail had been arrested for offenses like criminal trespass, public drunkenness or disorderly conduct. Many had not even been brought before a judge and charged, much less been convicted.’

    Another guy was helping board up his mother’s house when the police arrested him for trespassing. So you have a mixture of crims and people that in a just system should never have been there at all. This was not a case of they-must-have-done-something-wrong-or-they-wouldn’t-have-been-there.



  4. Tom Stone

    I did volunteer work in the jails for 15 years, some of those incarcerated should be kept in cages for the rest of their lives and some could be released now with little or no danger to society.
    Just because someone got caught and convicted for a relatively minor non violent crime does not mean that they aren’t a very dangerous individual.
    I can’t tell who would be a danger and who would not and NO ONE else can either.
    There is no good answer.

    On a personal note my home still stands and I hope to return in a few more days, power has been out so my fridge undoubtedly exhibits a good deal of cultural diversity..

    1. The Rev Kev

      Good to hear about your home making it through safe Tom. May I suggest that when you return home, that you take a trolley with you? When you get there, use it to take the fridge out in the open before opening it or else you may be burning incense sticks for days in the kitchen to get rid of the stench.

    2. Oso_in_Oakland

      very well stated, Tom “some of those incarcerated should be kept in cages for the rest of their lives and some could be released now with little or no danger to society”. those being released are in the latter category. it’s a hell of a quandary, wanting to do what’s best for humanitarian reasons and not wanting anyone harmed by a repeat offender. glad your home is safe too.

    3. ChrisPacific

      I did volunteer work in the jails for 15 years, some of those incarcerated should be kept in cages for the rest of their lives and some could be released now with little or no danger to society…

      …I can’t tell who would be a danger and who would not and NO ONE else can either.

      Perhaps not with 100% certainty, but this is a problem that we tackle every day in our society (parole hearings, psych assessments) so it doesn’t seem intractable.

  5. Anonymous

    I don’t see prisons in the Old Testament; one is either beaten with rods (39 strokes maximum) or executed (almost, if not always, by stoning).

    Me, I’d rather take 39 strokes than go to a US prison for a single day… And if I’ve done something worthy of death then being executed might easily seem preferable.

    The US “justice” system reminds me of this:

    … but even the compassion of the wicked is cruel. Proverbs 12:10

  6. Lil’D

    CZU complex and River / Carmel were benign overnight, little spread and slightly more contained

    AQI bad. 400 or so down the 101 corridor from Salinas to King City (“somewhere near Salinas I let her slip away”), 150 ish on the coast (Monterey bay)

    Unsettled weather is moving in and we will know tomorrow night how bad this week will be. Hoping for the best but lightning events are dangerous. Used to complain about the month of Fogust but it will be great to have grey masses of water not all the toxic mess from burning whatever.

  7. steven

    When I read about stuff like this and then remember conscious decisions were made 50 years ago, I find it very difficult to understand why the people who made and continue to make them are not in these prisons themselves. Or long since executed for crimes against humanity. It looks instead like they are dictating the platform for this country’s ‘local opposition’ party.

    While on the subject, what kind of sick joke is a country that spends a trillion dollars a year to defend its people from an attack that can never happen without the attacking country destroying itself and the rest of the world with it when in 6 months a virus kills more of them (non-native civilians, at least) than have been killed in all the nation’s wars throughout history?

    Anyone else feeling a little down?

  8. David in Santa Cruz

    As I type I’m sitting about 7500 feet from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire evacuation zone. Spending most of my time indoors with a HEPA fan going. Many of our friends and acquaintances lost homes on Wednesday when the fires swept through the forest communities of Bonny Doon and Swanton. Since that day, CalFire has bulldozed a pair of parallel miles-long fire breaks through the narrow band between the redwood forest and the sea, where the city is located.

    Due to budget cuts (and recent multi-billion dollar CalPERS bail-outs), there were merely 5 CalFire crews on duty during the massive thunderstorm on August 16. The storm ignited 22 fires in their territory, which have grown to 72.000 acres with 5% containment. There was no local mutual aid because of the massive LCU, SCU, and River Lightning Complex Fires in the adjacent counties. The main focus has been on evacuating 64,000 people from the fire zone.

    For decades there has been a Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation minimum-security conservation camp adjacent to the Bonny Doon community, which usually provides 101 hard-working young men as hand crews to cut fire breaks. I can’t find a reliable source, but I’ve been led to believe that the camp had been evacuated due to COVID and that no inmate crews were available to protect Bonny Doon. Most of the community was wiped off the map last Wednesday.

    Mass Incarceration is a huge issue in this country, but California has been under federal court supervision for many years. Two interesting statistics from the most recent CDCR population report: 76% of the prisoners are in state institutions for “Crimes Against Persons” and another 5.5% for Residential Burglary. “Weapons Possession” makes up 4%, but just 4% are incarcerated for “drug offenses,” half of them for possession with intent to sell; none of them for marijuana. Another significant statistic: just one court is responsible for sentencing fully a third of all California prisoners: Los Angeles County Superior Court.

    Further complicating matters, one of the worst super-spreader events of the California COVID epidemic involved moving prisoners — and more guards have died from COVID contracted in the institutions than have prisoners.

    1. savebyirony

      “…more guards have died from covid contracted in the institutions than have prisoners.” That is striking to read. Any idea what the factors are contributing to this?

      1. David in Santa Cruz

        The reporting on Sgt. Bobby Polanco doesn’t go into why he died. He was older; the guards probably have long shifts; they are likely having to work a lot of overtime and are discouraged from taking sick days. My big issue with both mass incarceration and the death penalty is the equally dehumanizing toll it takes on the people tasked with administering the prisons day-in and day-out.


  9. Rob

    I was a wildland firefighter for two summers in California in the late 1980’s. At least back then, the prisoner firefighters looked to me to be more expensive than our crew when you consider the true costs. Word was that the prisoners made a dollar a day, but the cost of overtime for guards and coordination of transport, food, portable showers, etc. seemed pretty high. We made about 8 bucks an hour. As a crew that wanted a good reputation so we would get called out more, we always worked very hard. Frequently, we would pass prison crews who seemed to be on permanent smoke break. I certainly don’t blame them – even though it was voluntary for them, it is still reminiscent of slavery. And I’ve heard that once they are out, they still can’t get jobs as firefighters, despite their experience, due to their criminal record. I have not researched it, but my impression is the prison guard union and prison contractors were probably the biggest beneficiaries of this program, not the citizens of California.

    1. Ian Ollmann

      The CZU complex fire fighting team said that they usually get 10-20 times as much manpower to fight the fire of this sort than they got this time around. There has been some good work in critical areas, but largely it seems they just evacuated a large area around it and have been letting it burn itself out. Hopefully tonight’s storm will not blow the thing up into a firestorm again.

      1. Rob

        Yes, this is so much worse than anything I saw as a firefighter. This fire has been devastating (my brother just lost his place in Santa Cruz), but at least the loss of life has been minimized so far. My observation about prisoners is that instead of paying the prison guards tons of overtime, perhaps the money would be better spent hiring people who don’t need guarding. When we were on standby, we would plant trees and do restoration work on creek beds, for example. The climate causes of fires are unlikely to end, we will be needing trees and people need work.

        1. Anonymous

          and people need work. Rob

          More precisely:

          1) People need (and to some extent DESERVE (i.e. a Citizen’s Dividend)) income
          2) people need and DESERVE the opportunity to work.

          But as far as public works are concerned, there must be some perverse economics at work to allow California to burn so often …

  10. Rocket J.

    California doesn’t “allow” itself to burn. It is the nature of the climate and environment. People have established permanent structures in areas that would burn every ten years or so if not for fire suppression. So, when a fire does get established, it has much more fuel to burn longer, faster, hotter, etc. and the firefighters mostly attempt to maneuver the flames to avoid structures and to contain its boundaries so it eventually runs out of ready fuel. Most western states’ environments work this way, The cost of protecting belongings is the price of living in fire zones.

  11. Jack Parsons

    Man, even here it’s fulla smoke… Tons of time for anyone to realize it’s Global Baking drying out our forests. I’ve got four fire zones within 50 miles and I’m in Silicon Valley. This is new.

    The “CZU” complex is Santa Cruz, which is on the Pacific side of the hills. The hills are maybe 1k feet high and march along the coast. The coastal side is normally foggy until noon, and those houses that burned in Bonny Doon have permanent moss problems. (I checked out real estate there.)

    This is different. This is a phase change. And yeah maybe Covid & prison labor are choking off the supply of firefighters, but they’re not setting the state on fire. That’s Global Warming.

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