Story and photos by Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Video by Jeff Baur, CDCR TV Specialist
Youth firefighters at a conservation camp took time to help nearly a dozen small Sierra Nevada foothill communities prepare for the holiday season.
Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp inmates have helped craft the small towns’ decorations for decades. For many, they are also crafting pieces of their own rehabilitation.
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Jackson City Manager Mike Daly said the inmate firefighters are very involved in the community, ranging from marching in the town’s Veterans Day parade to creating 200 holiday decorations adorning the historic Main Street area.
Daly, who has been city manager for 16 years, said the inmate-crafted pine boughs have been used far longer than he’s been in the area.
“They’ve been doing them for about 25 or 30 years,” Daly said. “They are on Main Street, on the bridges, everywhere around town. … Christmas is a big time of year here in Jackson.”
Jackson Mayor Patrick Crew said the inmates help the town.
“The camp guys also clean up the creeks,” Crew said. “They do more than one thing for us here.”
Daly said the efforts of the camp at Pine Grove are recognized by the citizens.
“The Pine Grove kids have about 15 in the Veterans Day parade. They bring out the (firefighting) vehicles and the equipment and they get one of the biggest rounds of applause,” Daly said.
The day after Thanksgiving, the city hosts a holiday open house with hundreds attending to kick off their holiday season.
“The open house is more like a family reunion,” said Mayor Crew. “I run into so many people I know. The camp’s decorations really add to the season. They really look great.”
Tom Menley retired last year from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after a 27-and-a-half year career, but returned to help run the decoration program. For 14 years, the Youth Correctional Counselor has seen firsthand the benefits of the project.
“I was at Pine Grove for 14 years and probably did the program for 12 years,” he said.
Counselor Menley said the program starts a few months in advance.
“We start collecting cones in September or early October,” he said. “So you find about 4,000 sugar pine cones with a permit from the U.S. Forest Service.”
Using wire, they tie the pine cones together to get ready for the next step.
“We cut our branches last minute,” he said. “We use the training crews a lot. Usually a Captain will take a crew with his chainsaw and do all the cutting for us. I would say there are easily 30 guys working on this program.”
Menley said he tries to space out the towns so the inmates aren’t trying to cram in too many at one time.
The inmates generally don’t see the point of the crafts project, at least not right away.
“They don’t see a benefit at first. Then when go up in town and they drive through town with the work crew and see them up, they get a sense of accomplishment,” Menley said. “They also get feedback from the communities as well. People tell them they did a great job. These guys go to work in the communities every day, so they see them.”
One inmate who worked on the project said being at the fire camp was much better than the alternative.
“It’s kind of like a second chance, instead of going to prison,” he said. “Being in a fire camp is very different. My family would rather see me up here than see in me (other institutions).”
Another inmate said this project is just part of the equation.
“I really think that I’ve changed as a person and once I do come back in the community, I will be a better person who will help out my community,” he said.
It takes a team
Youth Correctional Counselor Omar Hill was sweaty as were three young fresh-faced offenders after returning from a hike while wearing firefighting gear. Hill has worked in youth corrections for more than 23 years.
“Good job for the first day,” he shouted to the young men as they sat on the ground. “What did you learn?”
“Never stop,” said one.
“It’s all mental,” said another.
“That’s right,” Counselor Hill said. “It’s all mental.”
Much like a football coach talking to players, Hill told the youths they have to push through their personal limitations.
“Imagine the person you love is in a burning house,” he said. “And you see firefighters. One is running into the home. The other is moving slow and wanting to talk. This is the person you love in this house.”
He said it’s about determination and keeping yourself moving. On this day, the new inmates at Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp were returning from their first timed hike.
“We were about five minutes behind,” he said. “After you get into shape and do more hikes, we will be able to come in under the time. … We hike when it’s raining, when it’s snowing and when it’s sunny. Hiking is only a fraction of what we do.”
While the young inmates took a break under a tree, Counselor Hill recounted how the young men handled their first holiday decoration program.
“Going through Jackson today, they saw all the boughs are up. They were pleased with that,” he said. “When we started the program, there were a series of emotions. First, you’re making them work and they aren’t happy about that. A lot of these guys aren’t from a structured environment.”
He said getting them to see the bigger picture can be challenging.
“After time, they’ll start buying in. Once one or two buy in, they all buy in. For these particular guys (from the hike), it’s their first time being there (in the town) and seeing the outcome of the finished product,” Hill said.
He said it’s an important component of their rehabilitation.
“You have a person from an unstable background who has never had anyone express appreciation for anything they’ve done,” he said. “They have very little confidence and it builds as the project is finished. For the first time, they feel confidence in their abilities and a feeling of self-worth. That’s what I see.”
Hill, who has worked at other juvenile facilities during his career, said the camp setting offers the best chance of rehabilitation.
“Camp by far is the best place for staff and inmates. The environment is positive,” he said. “In institutions, you have gang violence. The climate is different here and they work together.”
He said if you didn’t know an inmate’s affiliation, it would be difficult to spot in the camp.
“Here they work together to protect each other, work with each other and they develop camaraderie,” he said. “Some of these guys go on to work at fire departments.”
He said the young offenders learn skills to help them become productive members of society after they are released.
“They are clean-shaven and ready to go to work by 8:15 a.m.,” Hill said. “They learn power tools, firefighting skills, how to submit to authority – which is huge for these guys – and it helps them transition easier into the community.”