Virginia uses low-cost inmate labor to battle forest fires

    COEBURN, Va. - The Virginia Department of Forestry is tapping into a resource, that is proving to be vital in battling forest fires in our area. It comes at a low cost to taxpayers. New's 5's Kristi O'Connor was with state prison inmates, as they assisted firefighters across the region. The inmates from the Wise Correctional Unit have easily doubled the manpower working to put out these fires. The crew battling arsons in Scott County was made up of eight state inmates, to just one state forestry worker.

    About 40 offenders in that facility are trained to battle the forest fires, they have been called out of the prison to help the last 14 days. Jay Stilwell of Tazewell, Va. has been in prison for the last 12 years for grand larceny of firearms. But for the last two fire seasons he has been working alongside state forestry crews. "It's pretty intense sometimes, especially ones that's just started, you've got to go around and dig your lines around the fire," Stilwell said. The offenders had to pass physical tests, like carrying several dozen-pound packs of equipment for a mile and a half under a certain time limit. They also had to pass fire certification courses like any other firefighter would. The Virginia Department of Forestry comes to the prison at least twice a year to train and refresh the offenders on firefighting techniques. But only offenders that meet certain qualifications can work outside of the prison. To be on the forestry crew, VDOC officials strictly review the offender's criminal history and behavior while detained. "They're what we consider the best of the best. They're within three years of paroling out, they are non-violent, they are not sex offenders," Superintendant of the Wise Correctional Unit Lafayette Fleming said. Since the offenders are trained and certified, they are considered a skilled worker by the VDOC, which means they are paid $0.45 an hour for their work. That breaks down to $3.60 for eight hours of fighting forest fires. Non-skilled offenders, like custodians, are paid $0.27 an hour. "They are able to use it to buy commissary, to buy personal property, to send out to their family or put into what we call a hold account for re-entry purposes when they do go back into society," Fleming said. But for most offenders, it is not about the pocket change. "It's about showing people that we want a second chance in life and the camp's willing to give it to us," Stilwell said. "So it's really nice to come help the community and people in need." The bone dry wooded areas of Southwest Virginia desperately need the help. "The 8 fires that we had, we were very short-handed. We were calling anyone we could get. Having the Camp 18 crew really helped us," Area Forester of Scott County Lucas Kerns said. Stilwell will be released from prison in 22 months, he says he plans to apply for a job with the Department of Forestry when he is released.

    Fleming says the Department of Forestry will reimburse them for the inmate labor. For just the Wise Correctional Unit's budget, they pay out about $150,000 a year for all of the work completed by inmates. That includes other jobs like preparing schools ahead of the year, maintenance work for the Town of Coeburn and work inside the prison.

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