Preparedness & Recovery

When Disaster Strikes, Inmates Can Move to the Front Lines of Community Response

Inmates and prison facilities are an underutilized resource when communities find themselves in a crisis.

by Elaine Rundle / September 25, 2009
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Conservation Camps program trains inmates to respond to wildfires and puts them to work on the front lines to protect state infrastructure and personal property. Photo by George Nyberg

Prisons and correctional facilities are like small cities in that they provide food, shelter, health care and other basic needs, and must be prepared for all types of emergencies, including natural disasters. Just as cities must create emergency preparedness and response plans based on their geography, prison officials must do the same. Those plans often involve the local community.

“Everything that a city needs to keep operating, a prison also needs,” said Capt. Robert Williams of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). “Food, sewer services, water, bedding -- you name it. [They’re] the basic life support things that you need to keep the population alive and well.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 2.3 million prisoners were incarcerated in federal and state prisons or local jails as of June 2008. Statewide, the CDCR has 33 adult prisons, 12 community correctional facilities, five prisoner mother facilities, 44 fire camps and more than 100 parole units. As of the fourth quarter of 2008, there are 316,229 total offenders under CDCR jurisdiction. Due to the state’s diverse geography, each facility is at risk for different natural disasters -- San Quentin State Prison is located near the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault, the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City is at risk for tsunamis, and the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy is flood prone.

These examples highlight the necessity for correctional departments like the CDCR to engage in disaster planning, simply because inmates and prison employees must remain safe.

"We think about what we might do if we were in an earthquake, and there’s information that you should stock up on food and water, have a radio and know how to turn off your gas, etc.,” said Terry Thornton, information officer of the CDCR. “[The general public] trains for natural disasters. But people don’t think about what a prison would have to do with 5,000 or 6,000 inmates.”

But along with those contingency plans is something less obvious: During an emergency, the resources and manpower offered by prisons can be an indispensable asset to the surrounding community.

Community Resource

Very few people and even some local governments are unaware that many prison facilities have emergency plans that would aid their communities in the event of a disaster. Thornton said these plans can include memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement or sheltering citizens on prison grounds. “For instance, Pelican Bay State Prison, because Crescent City is at risk for a tsunami, has an agreement with the community to provide housing in the event that there is a catastrophe like that,” she said.

Even if a prison is unscathed by a local natural disaster, it would still be affected because its correctional officers could be summoned to respond outside the facility’s walls. Williams said the CDCR has approximately 30,000 sworn peace officers within the system. Typically they are considered eight-hour-a-day peace officers, but during an emergency the governor can make them 24-hour peace officers, which could be a major resource for crowd control at evacuation shelters, a security presence or any other function that would require an officer’s presence.

“I think it’s a benefit to California that [prisons are] located all over the state. There’s practically nowhere in the state you can be where there’s not a prison within an hour drive,” Williams said. “We’re kind of an underutilized resource in those terms, and we’re hoping to build more awareness with our state agencies as to what the CDCR could bring to the fight.”

Watch a video about California's prisons aiding their communities during a disaster.

Fire Response -- With Inmates

In 1946 the CDCR teamed with California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to run Conservation Camps -- a program that teaches inmates how to respond to wildfires and puts them to work on the front lines to protect state infrastructure and personal property.

Level One inmates -- those who aren’t convicted of sex crimes or arson, aren’t in prison gangs and haven’t tried to escape -- are trained to perform hand-crew functions, like cutting fire breaks in advance of approaching forest fires. According to CDCR Capt. Ray Harrington, there are 44 camps scattered across the state and approximately 4,400 participating inmates.

“We most recently had a fire in the Santa Barbara area, and we had approximately 2,000 inmates who responded to the fire. They were responsible for assisting and saving 127 homes,” Harrington said.

Conservation Camps fire crews perform more than 2.5 million hours of emergency response work annually, according to Cal Fire. Training consists of a two-week physical fitness program and then four weeks at a firefighter academy that is set up at three correctional facilities. Williams said the inmate crews also are ready for other types of emergencies, such as aiding the state’s Department of Water Resources by filling sandbags during major floods.

Watch a video about California's Conservation Camps program.

Assisting Prisons Statewide

The CDCR’s headquarters in Sacramento is home to the Office of Correctional Safety’s Emergency Planning and Management Unit, which is prepared to activate its Department Operations Center (DOC) to provide resources and assistance to state institutions during natural or man-made emergencies. “We’re intended to provide support to the field when they have exhausted their resources,” said Williams, the unit’s leader. “As you can guess, there is a challenge in trying to coordinate response activities to those multiple sites, potentially at the same time. The Department Operations Center is intended to help us as a department to facilitate that in an organized manner.”

The operations center was created in 2007, paid for in part with U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant funding. It’s dual-purpose because in addition to its emergency management role, it acts as a threat-assessment center for criminal intelligence analysis, Williams said.

One of two criteria must be met in order for the CDCR to activate the operations center: More than one prison’s incident command post must be operating or a prison must be unable to meet its needs with existing resources. As of press time, the operations center had been activated only once -- in response to the H1N1 influenza outbreak in spring 2009. “When our secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation noticed the need for more enhanced coordination to help prepare our sites for a possible pandemic, we did stand up our Department Operations Center,” Williams said.

Although it wasn’t fully activated, he said, a dozen people ran the center, including section chiefs and command staff. For two weeks it was operated in 12-hour shifts, and as of press time it remained activated at duty officer status, which entails a roster of managerial staff that are on call 24 hours and monitor the situation to determine if the DOC should remain active.

One challenge of disaster planning for the CDCR, Williams said, is that there’s a perception among local government agencies that the state would take care of prisons during an emergency. Williams believes it will be the opposite during disaster response: Prisons will find that it’s more logical to engage with the locals for resource assistance -- like locating a bulldozer to open a road -- than to call Sacramento with the request. This means falling in line with the Incident Command System structure: Make the initial request locally; if the resources aren’t available, then the area emergency operations center will send the request to the regional operation center; and from there it goes to the state’s DOC.

“If needed during a major emergency, we send a state [representative] to the emergency operations center as well," Williams said. "So when our DOC is stood up, we would be in constant communication with somebody at the [State Operations Center].”

Watch a video about the CDCR’s Department Operations Center.

Prison Planning -- Evacuations

The CDCR has never had to evacuate a prison, but it came close in 1994 when the Deuel Vocational Institution’s (DVI) land was flooded to the point that it looked like the prison was in the middle of a temporary lake. Public Information Officer Gilbert Valenzuela said the area is flood prone. For example, in the 1970s up to two feet of water flooded the facility and employees had to be transported to and from work on boats.

Levees were built around the DVI because of the floodwaters, but in 1994 the water almost crested above the levees. “We were afraid the levee wasn’t going to hold and it was going to break, and we would be about three or four feet underwater again,” Valenzuela said.

The DVI activated its Emergency Operations Center and began to formulate an evacuation plan to move inmates from the facility’s bottom tiers and send them to other prisons. Fortunately the DVI didn’t have to evacuate its 4,000 inmates, but it still has those procedures in place in case they’re needed. Valenzuela recommended that facilities identify the potential challenges their location presents and the available resources in case of emergency.

San Quentin State Prison also has acted proactively in preparing for an earthquake. According to Thornton, over the years it has completed seismic upgrades and retrofitting. If the prison suffered damage, she said the first priority would be protecting inmates’ and employees’ lives -- the second priority would be preventing escapes.

Although the CDCR would prefer to shelter in place instead of evacuating inmates, during a disaster inmates could be transferred to any of the state’s facilities. Williams said the state can house up to about 200 inmates at any of its facilities, and if the need were extreme enough, tents could be erected to house inmates in a prison’s yard or cots could be set up in its gym. “That’s not something we particularly want, but if the need should arise and the governor gives us the order to do it, then we’re going to figure out a way to make it happen,” he said. He added that facility staff handle the day-to-day incidences very well, but it’s the natural disaster and terrorist attack types of emergencies that would require the prisons to ask for help.

Inside prison walls isn’t the only place that can be utilized for shelter. Williams said the large pieces of land that prisons are located on could be used to set up tents for displaced community members. The prisons’ food-service facilities also could be employed to serve the community. “It’s probably not well known out in the emergency preparedness community, and I’m not sure all of our local partners are aware of our capabilities in times of need,” Williams said.