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Colorado inmate fire crew slashes brush in La Plata County

State grant means crew will conduct mitigation along 83 miles of area roads
Michael Eads, left, and Steven Spain, both with the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team from the Rifle Correctional Center, clear trees and brush last week from a vital egress route in the Vista de Oro subdivision near Hesperus. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Enduring a barrage of sawdust, wearing thick protective chain saw chaps and feeding scrub oak into an obnoxiously loud chipper is not the typical definition of an idyllic job – and not for a wage of $40 per day.

But for Marc Whitaker, the work is a welcome opportunity. He is one of 14 men on the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team from the Rifle Correctional Center that is working on fire mitigation projects in La Plata County this month and this coming spring.

The SWIFT program is one of many prison workforce programs run by Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the Colorado Department of Corrections. CCi employs 950 incarcerated people at a variety of work programs with the goal of reducing the cost of the inmate population while also lowering recidivism rates by providing workforce development opportunities. The SWIFT program was founded in 2001, and there are currently two SWIFT crews in the state, one based in Rifle and the other in Cañon City. Each has 18 members but has the capacity to employ up to 25 firefighters.

Whitaker, 46, has served on the SWIFT crew for just three months. Before joining the crew, he trained dogs with CCi’s K-9 handler program for six years. He has the deep, warm voice one might expect from a dog handler, but the built physique of a firefighter.

Whitaker has a long list of things he likes about being on the crew.

Marc Whitaker, left, Ben Romero, center, and Joshua Smith chip brush and trees in the Vista de Oro subdivision near Hesperus. Whitaker joined the crew just three months ago. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“It desensitizes me to dealing with adversity in a work environment that’s high-pressure,” he said. “I really liked the practice of having a lot of people telling me what to do and having to just move and do it; I like working out, I like working hard and staying in shape; and just being part of a team; and, like I said, being willing to give back to the world somehow while I'm doing this time; and I love the outdoors and the camping.”

La Plata County applied for funding from the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program, which was founded by an act of the state Legislature in 2021 to quickly distribute $17.1 million of state stimulus money to reduce the impacts of wildfires and prevent losses of life, property and infrastructure. It was awarded two grants to conduct extensive mitigation work along 83 miles of road this fall and coming spring. Crews from the Southwest Conservation Corps will conduct mitigation work on county-owned land in the Edgemont subdivision.

The work consists of clearing vital egress routes along major county roads of oak and piñon juniper to reduce fuels and improve safety along the county right of way.

The county is not paying for the work. Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program awarded grants for the project to the county and will pay the crews directly. The SWIFT crew charges the program between $4,222 and $4,270 per day for its work in the county.

Alison Layman, the county’s wildfire and watershed mitigation/protection fund coordinator, said this is the first time the county has actively pursued fire mitigation work.

SWIFT crew members Kyle Danalewich, left, and Jeremy Johnson clear trees and brush in the Vista de Oro subdivision. La Plata County received grants for SWIFT and Southern Conservation Corps to conduct fire mitigation treatment throughout the county. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Work programs for incarcerated people have long garnered criticism on the basis that workers are paid inhumane wages. Activists have turned up the heat on inmate fire crews in particular because the work they perform is often so critical to saving valuable resources and infrastructure, but many are often unable to find jobs in the field upon their release as a result of their felony conviction.

The pay for SWIFT inmates is low – $40 per day for first-year crew members, $50 per day for second-year members, and state minimum wage, $12.56 per hour, for “Red Hats,” who are inmate supervisors. But the work still has several significant advantages over other job opportunities available to people incarcerated in Colorado state prisons, which can pay as poorly as $0.86 per hour, according to a June 2022 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

SWIFT crew member Michael Eads sharpens the chain on his chain saw. SWIFT crew members are fully trained wildland firefighters, and some have even received their Fire Figher Type II certification. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“The pay’s not bad, as far as prison goes,” Whitaker said.

Jessica Warren, who has been the executive director of CCi for about a year, said the program’s history is one barrier preventing them from raising wages. Until this past March, CCi was required to turn a profit.

“It wasn’t a part of the ethos, the thinking, of CCi historically,” she said. “It was very much, in my mind, a work opportunity that was a way to ... reduce offender idleness as opposed to provide sophisticated jobs.”

Layman said the SWIFT crew’s efficiency was part of the draw of having members work in the county.

“The opportunity to work with a trained crew of the size of a SWIFT crew means that the County can get more wildfire mitigation accomplished,” Layman said in an email to The Durango Herald.

Beyond the financial incentive, each day served on the SWIFT crew is a day taken off that crew member’s sentence and, unlike other programs that offer time off, the only cap is that the reduction cannot exceed two-thirds of a crew member’s sentence.

Orion Pilson has served on the SWIFT crew for a year, but his tenure will end on Nov. 9, when he is released.

“I’ve accumulated like five months to six months ... in earned time,” he said. “It allowed me to get in to go home to the halfway house a lot sooner.”

Whitaker also said that working on a team in the community can make a good impression on the parole board. Whitaker was denied parole the first time he went in front of the board, but he hopes to secure his release in three weeks, when he will appear in front of the board again. If denied, he is likely to see the board one more time before his mandatory release date in September 2024.

Fort Lewis Mesa provided amenities and a camping location for the SWIFT crew members as they begin fire mitigation work in the Vista de Oro subdivision. They will return this spring to conduct mitigation treatment on county roads 117 and 142. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

SWIFT crew members are highly trusted, “model inmates.” The criteria for their selection is stringent. Crew members are often out of eyesight of Department of Corrections employees, running chain saws and keeping in touch by radios.

Those convicted of a violent crimes and sex offenders are not eligible for the program. To meet the DOC’s security requirements, offenders must be within five years of parole eligibility, within 10 years of their mandatory release date, and have served at least half the time of their sentence, including reductions for good behavior. Then they must run 1½ miles in less than 12 minutes.

If an incarcerated person has met the security management team’s criteria and the initial physical test, he or she will undergo two months of training. Crew members receive the S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior, S-130 Firefighter Training and S-212 Wildland Fire Chainsaws courses which fully qualify them as wildland firefighters.

“Every one of these guys right here, if we got called to go to a fire, they could pack up and go to a fire right now,” said Dennis DeLong, who oversees both of CCi’s SWIFT crews.

Some SWIFT crew members, such as Whitaker and Pilson, have little interest in continuing to work in firefighting after their release. Whitaker hopes to continue training dogs and Pilson intends to get his commercial driver’s license and become a truck driver. But others have found their calling.

Steven Spain, 34, is a new SWIFT member – it’s just been two months since he joined the program – but he already hopes to stick with this line of work after his release. To Spain, working outdoors away from “the facility” and the intercom means freedom, especially after serving five years of a 12-year sentence.

“I spent the last five years in a cell,” he said. “And being able to come out here and give back to my community in any sort of situation – I mean, I was a hell raiser. ... For me to be able to do something like this, (I want to) make my kids proud.”

But finding fire jobs can be difficult for former SWIFT members, for whom options are limited by their felony convictions.

CCi currently operates two SWIFT crews, each with a capacity to employ up to 25 inmates. It currently employs 18 each. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
SWIFT crew member Steven Spain holds a lizard he found while clearing brush and trees last week from along side of a road in the Vista de Oro subdivision. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A law signed by Gov. Jared Polis in April 2021 has attempted to fix the problem by directing the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to “develop informational materials to increase awareness of wildland fire career opportunities” for people who gain experience while incarcerated. However, DFPC spokeswoman Caley Pruitt confirmed that no former SWIFT members have applied to DFPC since the law was passed.

Pruitt said she does not know why that is.

DFPC’s outreach has consisted of a twice-yearly job posting sent to DOC officials and online job postings. The agency also attends career fairs, although it does not do any in-person recruitment inside correctional facilities.

Garry Briese, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs, says this type of recruitment is simply insufficient when attempting to reach out to people with felony convictions.

“Obviously it’s not working the way it was intended,” Briese said. “... They (DFPC) probably have met the letter of the law as opposed to the traditional spirit of the law.”

Warren said CCi is in the midst of reevaluating SWIFT’s identity. The partnership with Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program that brought the crew to La Plata County has meant that SWIFT members can be doing mitigation work year-round, as opposed to just suppression during wildfire season. And while the law is there to help these skilled firefighters find jobs if they so wish, she agrees that its practical function has yet to be seen.

She said DOC and outside entities such as DFPC can both do better to facilitate the transition.

Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty said that while the department does background checks, a former felony conviction would not necessarily disqualify an applicant.

“We believe in second chances,” he said.

However, like most departments, Durango fire requires its firefighters who respond to structure fires to have a valid EMT certification, something people with a felony conviction cannot obtain in Colorado. Doughty emphasized that the department has and will continue to consider applicants with felony convictions for wildland fire and other roles that don’t require EMT certifications.

Some SWIFT members seek to continue firefighting work upon their release. DeLong said he has helped over 24 former SWIFT members that have sought firefighting jobs upon their release from prison. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado confirmed there are not currently any members of BLM fire crews with felony convictions in the state.

DeLong said he has helped at least 24 former SWIFT members get fire jobs since the program began in 2001, including five last year.

Still, former SWIFT members face a complex web of challenges anchored to myriad regulations and agencies.

“We may have unlocked a door, but if they don’t know how to open a door, then it’s still locked,” Briese said.

The SWIFT crew will return in the spring to finish mitigation work along County Roads 117 and 142.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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