After months of complaints from firefighter inmates and their families that their sentences were arbitrarily being increased under new good-conduct credit rules, California prison officials said Wednesday they are correcting the problem.
Firefighter inmates have complained since May that changes in good-conduct credits appeared to have added months and sometimes years to their projected release dates without explanation, and some complained they believed prison officials were trying to keep firefighting inmates longer to help deal with the California’s siege of wildfires.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials denied that, and said firefighter inmates were not actually having their sentences increased under regulations that took effect May 1.
“The previous proposed changes, while well-intentioned, created a lot of unnecessary operational challenges, as well as confusion in both our population and their families, because they were getting release date calculations at the end of every month, instead of at the beginning of their sentence,” CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison said in a statement Wednesday. “We listened to these concerns, and made the decision to revert the credit-earning calculation so that people can see their release dates up front.”
The original change in how credits were calculated resulted in fire camp inmates suddenly seeing their expected release dates pushed out without explanation, inmates and family members said.
Inmate Donnell Marin was housed in a fire camp in Sylmar and was told in April that his projected release date was July 23. After the regulations took effect May 1, his release date was changed to April 2022 and, later, to September 2022.
Inmate Sean McGivern had a similar complaint, telling The Sacramento Bee in September that his paperwork showed he had “zero days remaining” on his sentence but was still in custody and could not get an explanation of why he had not been released. McGivern said that after inmates raised complaints and The Bee began inquiring about the issue fire camp officials began using Wite-Out to obscure the “time remaining” line on paperwork.
Both inmates have since been released, CDCR online records show.
As of Wednesday, CDCR says the total fire camp population was 1,764, with about 1,066 of them hand crew firefighters who work under the supervision of Cal Fire officials.
CDCR pays inmate firefighters between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, with Cal Fire paying another $1 per hour while they are working a fire. Inmates in other jobs are paid between 8 cents and 37 cents an hour.
CDCR says the proposed regulations are being submitted to the Officer of Administrative Law, which has 20 days to review them certify that they can take effect on an emergency basis for 160 days and be subject to public comment.
The changes would discontinue the minimum security credit that offered 30 days of credit earned for every 30 days served eligible inmates in fire camps or minimum-security facilities. The new regulations will offer two days credit for every day served for fire camp or minimum custody for inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, and 50% credits for fire camp inmates convicted of violent crimes.
CDCR conceded the rules that went into effect May 1 “did not give incarcerated individuals or their loved ones a clear release date.”
“Having a projected release date gives people something to work toward — knowing that if they keep up their good work they will release on a certain date is a strong incentive to stay on a positive path,” the department said, adding that new release date calculations will begin for affected inmates.
“Case records staff will enter every eligible incarcerated person’s individual information into a new calculation system, beginning with people whose release dates are soonest,” the department said. “As part of this process, staff will ensure that each release date is accurate in accordance with these credit-earning changes and state law. Each individual will be notified of their new date as soon as possible.”
The regulations adopted May 1 quickly sparked a lawsuit by 44 California prosecutors complaining the rules would speed up the release of 76,000 inmates, despite CDCR’s insistence that “this is not an early release program.”
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who spearheaded the lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court, said at the time that “allowing the early release of the most dangerous criminals, shortening sentences as much as 50%, impacts crime victims and creates a serious public safety risk.”
The suit is pending, and Schubert is running as an independent for state attorney general.