Arizona Prison Inmates Fight Fires

Flagstaff, AZ – AMBY: Buzz of chainsaws

Johnny Peltier turns off his chainsaw to take a break. Dressed in fire retardant wool in the middle of the summer, sweat drips from his forehead. The work is hard but Peltier says it's better than making license plates and it makes him feel something he hasn't felt in a while - proud.

PELTIER: It's been a self esteem builder. Before sometimes they'll see a guy in orange that's a bad guy that doesn't do too much for you. But when you get people walk up to you, shake your hand and treat you as an equal due to the work you've done it does a whole lot for a person.

A few years ago Peltier stole a car and now he's serving his third year of a four-year sentence at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Winslow. He's on one of 15 prison firefighting crews statewide.

State Lands Forester Kevin Boness started the year-round prison firefighting program in 1990 when the governor was looking for cheap ways to prevent and fight catastrophic wildfires. While a hotshot crew costs 7-thousand dollars a day a prison crew costs half that.

BONESS: We didn't know whether we would be able to convince people that inmates were the way to go. We kind of felt our way a couple years and it proved itself to be a successful program.

Boness says inmates have to pass a rigorous set of standards to be included in the program - no arsons or violent crime on their record. And part of the secret to the program's success is treating the inmates with respect.

BONESS: We try very hard not to identify them as inmates. And the inmates tend to respond in kind. Boness says the work experience has created a type of brotherhood among the inmates. They even police each other on the job.

Boness says since the program started nearly 20 years ago no one has tried to run away. He says the inmates realize there's a lot at stake if they do. They wouldn't want to jeopardize their release, or any future employment opportunities.

Several former inmates have used their prison firefighting training to get jobs after they're out. Brian Hicks is one of them. It took him a while to realize the value of a legitimate job.

HICKS: I was pretty stupid I was going to the University of Arizona and it wasn't enough for me to have a little bit of money. Instead of working and getting money the right way I thought it was smart to take cars or take things that weren't mine. And now I go to the grocery store and I don't even like taking grapes off the counter.

Today Hicks works as a supervisory forestry technician on the Santa Catalina Ranger District in Tucson. He does the same work he did as a prisoner, only now he does it as a free man. He went from 50 cents an hour in prison to 60-thousand dollars a year on the outside.

HICKS: I own a house now I own a car I've got the white picket fence It gives me a good feeling to say hey wow my family's proud of me and my kids they come to my work and draw pictures of trees. They think Smoky the Bear's my boss. It makes me proud to see them hey they want to be a firefighter.

For Hicks being part of the DOC firefighting crew made him think about what he really wanted for himself after he got out of prison. And says if he could go back and change his life he wouldn't because it ultimately led him to his future career.

And as many as 20 percent of former inmates involved in the program are doing the same.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.