Twenty county jail inmates packed up their personal items Wednesday and boarded vans headed for a state firefighting camp in Sylmar.
The group is the first wave in a contract to eventually house 500 L.A. County inmates in such camps. L.A. County entered into the agreement earlier this year to help alleviate crowding in the jails. Inmates sentenced to long-terms started flowing into local jails under AB109, the state's prison realignment policy. That policy made counties responsible for punishing people convicted of lower level felonies.
Before realignment started in 2011, state correctional firecamps were mostly populated with prison inmates who were classified as a low-security risk; a population that dried up since many were shifted to the counties. So the state is now looking to fill those slots with jail inmates, like those in Los Angeles.
Henrick Robler, of the Antelope Valley, said he's anxious, but looking forward to getting to the camp. Robler's been in jail for 21 months for selling drugs and has about 8 months to go before his release.
"I actually get to help do something worth something," Robler said. "I've been down a long time now, so I'm just trying to do something productive."
Robler and the other inmates assigned to the camp will be deployed to wildfires to clear brush that fuels the spread of a fire. Charles Saikley, of Manhattan Beach, said training for that role was fairly grueling. Particularly the miles-long daily hikes over the hills around Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.
"I thought I could do it, when I got here it was a little tough," Saikley said. "But you start to get in shape and you get better at it."
Saikley, also in jail on a drug sales conviction, said one of the main motivations for volunteering was to get far away from the jail environment. It has no yards, a constantly shifting population, and cramped quarters.
"General population is a nightmare in L.A. County jail," Saikley said. "Firecamp is a chance to be out in the sun every day."
Inmates selected for the camps must first volunteer, then pass background screenings and fitness tests before they are selected.
Los Angeles currently has another 180 inmates who are being trained for deployment to area firecamps. The full roll-out of 500 inmates is expected to take another year and a half.