Inmates express burning desire to help out
Post Independent Staff
RIFLE – When there isn’t a fire burning, the Juniper Valley Rifle Icemen are at their firehouse doing what firefighters do. Some play cards, others hustle in and out, sweating under heavy packs and wildfire-fighting gear.
The difference between this firehouse and most other wildland firehouses is that Juniper Valley’s is inside the fence at the Rifle Correctional Facility.
The Juniper Valley Rifle Icemen are Colorado Department of Corrections inmates.
They are part of a program known as SWIFT, State Wildland Inmate Firefighting Team.
SWIFT started last year in Pueblo, and then was moved to the minimum security correctional facility in Canon City. This year, Rifle Correctional Facility warden Bobby Johnson brought the SWIFT program to Rifle.
John said the SWIFT program has two goals: To provide a public service, and to reduce the inmate recidivism rate. Recidivism is the percentage of inmates that return to the prison system after they are released.
The idea is that inmates will receive wildland firefighting training while they are in the correctional system that they will be able to use when they are released. The new skills and job are intended to keep inmates from getting into trouble again once they are released, said Johnson.
Though it is too early to tell what impact the program will have on recidivism rates, said Jack Laughlin, a service sector manager for Correctional Industries, only two of the original 28 SWIFT participants from Canon City have been sentenced back to the facility.
At the other end of the spectrum, corrections supervisor Amy Cook, one of the Juniper Valley fire bosses, said she went through some of her training as a fire boss with two graduates of the Canon City SWIFT program who were seeking jobs and training after they’d been released.
This fire season, the Juniper Valley crew has worked on the Brush Mountain fire and the South Glenwood fire.
“Right now were doing mostly mop-up operations,” said Cook. The crew is rated as a Type 3 crew for now, but could be moved up to Type 2 with more training and experience.
“They did good work on the South Glenwood fire,” said Frankie Romero, an interagency fire management officer for the Upper Colorado region.
“With a little direction they’ll probably be a pretty good fire crew,” he said.
In most regards, Juniper Valley functions just like any other fire crew. They are requested through the dispatch center in Grand Junction when they are needed. They can stay out for 14 days in a row, until they are required to take two days of rest, just like any other crew.
The difference is that they are counted several times a day to make sure each of the inmates are still where they are supposed to be. A redundant system of counts, “maintains very good accountability,” said Johnson.
One of the biggest security features is the strict selection process, said Johnson.
All inmates at the facility have already worked their way down from more secure facilities, said Johnson, and are at the end of their sentence.
Violent offenders and sex offenders are not allowed to apply for SWIFT.
Inmates selected for the program must not have had a report filed against them for at least six months, be drug free, have a GED or high school diploma, completed remedial programs assigned by the state, and passed intellectual performance standards, said Johnson.
In addition to strict requirements to get into SWIFT, inmates have to have good behavior to stay in the program.
“We’re expecting them to hold themselves to a higher standard than any other inmate,” said Cook. If they misbehave, they can be kicked out of the program, she said.
Though it is impossible to tell if Juniper Valley SWIFT firefighters will keep fighting fires after they are released, which is a goal of the program, most say they will.
“We’re going to learn a good skill that we can use when we get out,” said Juniper Valley firefighter Charles DeWeese.
For the SWIFT program participants that don’t go into firefighting when they get out, they say they are still gaining valuable experience.
“This helps us get reintegrated back into society,” said Anthony Palmer, of being able to have contact with normal citizens again.
When working the South Glenwood fire, they were treated as heroes, said the firefighters. Most reported having residents come up and thank them, and having kids come talk to them.
When a little girl came to talk to Fernando Hernandez during the South Glenwood fire, he said, “It was weird, ’cause I was like, `I’m a firefighter.'”
“We’re not inmates out there – we’re firefighters – and that’s how other people see us too,” said Travis Burkholder.
“We can help people, and that makes me feel as good as I did when I was doing that other stuff,” said Burkholder, of the trouble he was getting into before he was sentenced to jail.
Most of the inmates said SWIFT is a good program. But they recognize what they really need is to take responsibility for their own actions when they get out of prison.
“It is a good program? Yeah,” said Robert Taylor, who is near the end of a long prison sentence and the admitted “old man” of the group.
“Its a good opportunity,” he said, but added, “nothing’s going to change unless you want to change.”
Still the enthusiasm of the Juniper Valley firefighters is enormous.
“Most of my life I’ve been taking from people, taking their cars, taking their jewelry,” said Ryan Garcia. “It gives us a chance for redemption, to give back.”
Contact Ryan Graff: 945-8515, ext. 535
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