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Prisoner firefighters poisoned by Montecito mudslide – no forewarning

February 16, 2018

by Malcolme Morgan

Emergency workers search for survivors trapped by the Montecito mudslide. One of the survivors who escaped is Oprah Winfrey. According to Mother Jones, 30 percent of California’s crews fighting forest and brush fires are prisoners. – Photo: Santa Barbara County Fire Department via New York Times

I was recently transferred from San Quentin State Prison to Oak Glen Conservation Camp, which is one of several chain gang facilities or “fire camps” in the state of California. Incarcerated firefighters save bureaucrats in California millions of dollars every year by performing the various odd jobs that nobody else wants to do.

Even Cal Fire captains often admit that most average firefighters are not willing to carry out the tasks that inmate firefighters are burdened with, such as fighting raging fires with measly hand tools. Regular firefighters are certainly not willing to do the menial jobs that inmate crews routinely perform, such as cleaning up homeless encampments and picking up trash.

Before and during my firefighter training, I heard a number of firsthand stories about the wretched conditions in which inmate firefighters work, but now I have witnessed them with my own eyes.

Incarcerated firefighters save bureaucrats in California millions of dollars every year by performing the various odd jobs that nobody else wants to do.

On Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, two crews from Oak Glen Conservation Camp were sent to clean up the mudslides that wreaked havoc in the affluent neighborhoods of Montecito. Inmate crews were not forewarned of any hazards posed by the mud as they were deployed for one week.

The crews returned to Oak Glen on Friday, Jan. 19. Upon arrival, one crew member noticed an open wound that was swelling on his foot. He did not think much of it, since he was not alerted about any dangers associated with exposure to the mud. However, within a few days, this crewmember’s swollen wound turned into an abscess.

When the injured crewmember informed Oak Glen correctional officers about his swollen wound, he was taken to the hospital – in no rush – and informed that he had an infection due to his exposure to the contaminated mud. On Saturday, Jan. 27, soon after the injured inmate went to the hospital, Oak Glen Sgt. J. Lanthripp passed out a memorandum to both of the crews who responded to the mudslides.

Before and during my firefighter training, I heard a number of firsthand stories about the wretched conditions in which inmate firefighters work, but now I have witnessed them with my own eyes.

This memo explained to inmate firefighters the test results from the mud they had just spent one week trudging through. The test results were grim, showing traces of fecal bacteria, e. coli, gasoline and motor oil in the mud. Of course, the memos were only passed out to cover Oak Glen and CDCR against charges of negligence.

But in reality, the prisoners should have been advised of these dangers before being marched into the mud. This story is yet another example of the inhumane conditions that inmates must endure in this era of the new Jim Crow and neo-slavery.

The prisoners should have been advised of these dangers before being marched into the mud.

Send our brother some love and light: Malcolme Morgan, G-63825, Oak Glen CC #35, 41100 Pinebench Rd. Yucaipa CA 92399.

10 thoughts on “Prisoner firefighters poisoned by Montecito mudslide – no forewarning

  1. Alan Courtney

    Governor Brown: Commute the sentences of every last inmate-firefighter who put their lives on the line to save million-dollar mansions and end slave labor by prison inmates. That would be true justice.

    Reply
  2. KeepItReal

    The inmates are required by state law to have 3 meals a day. A shower every day- In turn shuts down the showers for the rest of the fire personnel in fire camp. In most cases every first responder out there trudging through the mud had just as much at stake in getting infected. Unless you had experience in this type of rescue, you were unprepared and walking through the mud, Ill equipped it was an emergency response. Up until rescue mode ended and it went to recovery most personnel were in unfamiliar territory. At times most these inmates were not just assisting in the searching but possible looting finding victims lost belongings and alcohol. Most these individual preferto be at fire camps than in prison. I have also seen these individual get hired in federal fire fighter positions. There have been prisoner fire crews we’ll before ol Jerry brown

    Reply
  3. Fireking58

    These inmates that whine and complain about conditions during a emergency should stay in their cells and play with their mates and leave the firefighting to the real men. I am a retired Fire Captain who had ran these crews for 16 yrs of my 31 yr career, and nobody can control what conditions arise during these disasters. As you see in the picture above everybody is working side by side so why isn't the title of this story all first responders were poisoned in Montecito.

    Reply
  4. Rafael A.

    thank you for the great article. hopefully he writes a follow up on who really is on the front lines with the inmates and by the passing of the new law now inmates really do not have a choice to go to fire camp or not. now they can get write ups if they refuse or complain about their conditions.

    Reply
  5. Montecito neighbor

    There is a lot of misinformation here.

    I was also out in thigh high mud helping with the effort after the debris flow of January 9th.

    It is obnoxious misreporting that Montecito is a fully exclusive, affluent community made up of multi-million dollar mansions and celebrities. Yes there are the rich and famous here, but this is also a community with working class families who rent small cottages.

    When we all joined the effort – locals, first responders, and inmates alike, it wasn’t known what was in the muck we were wading in. We all braved these conditions as it was a time sensitive rescue effort. Many of us contracted poison oak, broke out with rashes, and ended up with festering wounds. That is the risk one takes in this sort of search. Inmates were in the same cesspool as were trained and untrained personnel, locals and outsiders, the wealthy and the working class, and everyone else with a heart that cared enough to help a close knit town that was in shock after devastation and loss.

    The inmates were a valued asset to this community both during the fires and the debris flow. They gave it their all, with grace and dignity, and were fully appreciated.

    Reply
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