Last fire camp standing

Larry Gray on his second day at Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp. Photo: Callie Shanafelt/California Health Report

Driving into the wooded campus of Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp feels like arriving at a summer camp – until you see the road signs warning that you are entering a correctional facility.

The mint green office, school, kitchen and dorm buildings are relics from their Civilian Conservation Corps days. The only hint that something unique is happening here is the large garage with red and white ambulance-looking vehicles marked CAL FIRE parked inside.

At this camp, about 60 young men aged 18-25 serve the last year of their sentence with the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) fighting wild land fires and responding to other emergencies on a CAL FIRE crew. There are no fences, the doors are unlocked and wards are regularly left unsupervised.

“We give them opportunities to screw up,” says Camp Superintendent Mike Roots. “We hope they don’t—but sometimes it takes a while.”

The main goal of the camp is to prepare wards to return to their communities with a work ethic and job skills that will help them be productive members of society. But after a decade of juvenile realignment, Roots says that goal is getting harder to achieve.

In the past ten years, the DJJ has gone from more than ten thousand wards to under one thousand. Most low-level offenders are now serving their time in county facilities and those left in state institutions are the highest-level offenders.

In order to qualify to finish their sentences at Pine Grove wards must show signs of rehabilitation, not be a flight risk or have violent tendencies. The number of wards who qualify is getting less and less.

Ten years ago there were six fire camps for juveniles throughout the state. Pine Grove is now the last camp in operation. But Pine Grove is a crucial program for preparing these young men to go back out into the world. Most of them are serving sentences of less than three years.

“A program like Pine Grove is great because it teaches you to practice [life skills] in a pretty safe setting,” says juvenile justice expert Barry Krisberg of the Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley.

“If they’re all coming home what’s the process you’d like to see them go through before they come home?” asks Krisberg. “Lock up 21 hours a day is not a good public safety strategy.”

Eighteen-year-old Manuel Lujan has served two years for assault, the result of a fight back in his hometown of Bakersfield. Before coming to Pine Grove, he was incarcerated in the Preston and O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facilities.

“Over there it’s just to do your time—over here it’s to get your mind right.” Lujan said.

In the other institutions he was associated with the Sureños gang. In Pine Grove he’s on a work crew with people from rival Norteños gangs. One day while they were out hiking, he was surprised when he slipped and a Norteño helped him back up.

“I thanked him,” said Lujan.

“Here, a lot of people basically put their gang stuff behind them,” said 21-year-old Jose Nunez “because it’s your life or another person’s life and you got to be able to help them out.”

Roots says wards with gang backgrounds often catch on to the firefighting chain of command quicker than others.

“They have a value system – it’s a messed up one, but they have one,” Roots said. “If their allegiance goes to their crew instead of their gang, they end up doing a great job.”

Many of the wards at Pine Grove are reevaluating their relationships on the outside.

“All this gang banging that’s old news—that was fun when I was young,” said 19-year-old Larry Gray of Inglewood. “Everybody in my hood, they’re my associates—my one true homie understands.”

Many of the wards never worked before they were incarcerated. Now they all have to get up and work every morning whether there is a fire or not. Every night from 6-10 the ones without a high school diploma have to go to school.

“The pace here is ten times what it is in a facility, yet when they leave here it is one hundred times what it is in here,” Superintendent Mike Roots said.

And he points out that at Pine Grove they are provided with a place to live, food to eat and access to a doctor and nurse 24 hours a day, something that is harder to come by on the outside.

Twenty-two-year-old Bryan Griffith of Oakland has been at Pine Grove for about a year. Before that he served four years of his sentence for second degree homicide at the Preston facility. Over the first two months of his time at Pine Grove, his CAL FIRE captains promoted him through fifteen crew positions to first man because he demonstrated strong leadership qualities and work ethic.

That position comes with privileges. The base pay for any ward is one dollar an hour. As first man, Griffith is paid two dollars an hour with an additional dollar added when he is out responding to an emergency. He also eats first and sits at the head of the table in the mess hall.

But even though he’s learned to shoulder extra responsibility, Griffith says sometimes he’s embarrassed to think about how unprepared he is for the outside world. “I don’t know nothing about no ATM machine,” Griffith said. “I never got a chance to drive myself back and forth to work.”

But he says Pine Grove has helped him to take one step closer to his freedom. He’s decided he would rather go home and get a living wage job than make quick money selling drugs.

“Just learning to accept you can’t get everything you want in life,” Griffith said, “and it actually feels good to do the right thing.” When he gets out in December he hopes a family friend will be able to help him enroll in a pipe trades apprenticeship in San Francisco.

When asked if he wants to be a firefighter the answer is a simple “No.” He hopes to start a family and he doesn’t want to spend 2-3 days at work.

Superintendent Mike Roots says about 10 percent of their wards have been determined to keep fighting wild land fires and got work with the forest service.

The CALFire Division Chief Brian Estes says since most of the wards at Pine Grove and adult fire camps have felonies they are disqualified from working for CAL FIRE or local fire departments. The work crews at Pine Grove basically contain wild land fires by using hand tools to clear fire lines around the fire. Currently only inmates are doing this work.

Estes says it is getting harder and harder to build crews of the highest-level firefighters at the fire camps. “I’m concerned for the program and the future in general because of realignment and DJJ in general,” Estes said. “If you look at the history, I’d be crazy to say I’m not concerned.”

Until recently, the camp had four crews of 13-17 young men. They require two crews in order to assemble a strike-team to go to another part of the state for a fire. They recently had to send an entire crew back to institutional facilities because they robbed a house when they were out on a fire.

Superintendent Mike Roots says nothing like that has happened during the seven years he’s been there.

He thinks some aspects of realignment such as the increased rehabilitation programs have been positive, but he’s finding it challenging to cope with others.

Before realignment, wards were paroled to state parole officers with whom Pine Grove caseworkers worked closely to find placements. Sometimes that meant finding them a place to live away from negative associations back home. Now wards are released into the supervision of county probation departments. Roots worries that rehabilitation will be more difficult after realignment because there is no longer the same emphasis on getting wards away from the negative peer influences they had before detention.

Barry Krisberg believes that probation officers are in a better position than parole to integrate these guys back into their communities. But he says the transition from parole to probation was made too quickly and with little planning.

Krisberg is more concerned that no one is tracking the 500 youth who’ve been released from DJJ since the switch. “Why isn’t the legislature demanding to know what is happening to these youth?” asks Krisberg. “Public safety demands we should be doing it.”

Roots will continue to follow-up with his wards twelve months after they’re released and try to adjust his program to set his wards up for success.

Wards like 19-year-old Nathaniel Hawkins will be returning to Los Angeles in nine months. He’s working on his AA through correspondence courses at Coastline Community College and hopes to eventually study business and acting. He returns to a supportive mother who was devastated by his past behavior.

“She’s proud of me now,” Hawkins said. I’m proud of myself, I never thought I’d be here to the point I’m a man like this—but I am.”

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