How Prisoners Are Being Used To Help Fight Bushfires

With no end in sight to the bushfire crisis, Corrective Services NSW has revealed it is considering training prisoners to help fight fires, while inmates in WA have been helping out for years.

Some Australian prisons have been at the forefront of bushfire danger this season, with at least six locations evacuated so far.

On Thursday, Corrective Services NSW revealed to 10 daily that it was "exploring options to establish inmate firefighting teams at a number of minimum-security correctional centres across the state."

A Corrective Services NSW spokeswoman said they would need to meet strict criteria in terms of their offence history, security classification and release date.

It's unclear which locations would be involved in the plan but one of the state's largest is Silverwater Correctional, which houses both minimum and maximum security inmates.

Former police officer and corrective services expert Dr Michael Kennedy thinks the move "makes perfectly good sense".

"In prison farms, they are training them to do all sorts of things to prepare them for the outside world. In terms of risk management, in terms of safety, it makes perfectly good sense to do that and extend it to fire training," Kennedy from Western Sydney University said. 

There are about 43,000 Australians in prisons across the country, and more than 90 per cent are men, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

There are a lot of former prisoners who are now part of the Rural Fires Services so it's actually a good pathway to re-invest in community, Kennedy said.

Western Australia has so-far led the charge in training up low-risk prisoners to help fight fires. The state has done so since 2010. While they aren't permitted to be at the front of the fire line, they have assisted in refilling water bombers and in the clean up and recovery effort.



Australia's Bushfire Towns Could See Wave Of Dark Tourism

Apocalyptic scenes of charred land, dead animals and skies blanketed in smoke are not the typical visuals tourists associate with a holiday in Australia -- but they could encourage a new type of traveller to look our way.

A WA justice department spokeswoman told 10 daily trained inmates were not located close enough to fires affecting the state in 2020, so none have been sent to help at this stage.

In 2016, inmates at regional prisons in the state underwent water aircraft re-loading training to help firefighters. In 2011 and  teams of supervised low-risk prisoners helped during Perth suburb Armadale’s large scale bushfire clean-up.

A Californian inmate fire crew clears brush and puts out hotspots in August 2019. Image: Getty Images

In America, California employs more than 3000 inmates as part of the state's Conservation Camp program. There, low-risk prisoners provide critical support to state and federal agencies responding to emergencies and disasters. It is estimated the prison program saves Californian taxpayers about $AU145 million a year.

When not on the fire front, California's inmate firefighters perform conservation and community service projects including clearing brush and fallen trees to reduce the chance of blazes, maintaining parks and reforestation.

Introducing a California inspired inmate program in Australia would be supported by staff union the Prison Officers' Vocational Branch (POVB).

"I'm aware of Western Australia's program and overseas like California and it is very rewarding for the inmates as well as the staff that train them," POVB Chairperson Nicole Jess told 10 daily.

Head of prison union PVOB Nicole Jess says training programs are rewarding for inmates. Image: POVB

However Jess said security measures would need to be "super tight, with a very thorough selection process".

Prison officers would be held responsible if an inmate escapes or tries to escape.

In a move towards engaging prisoners in the current bushfire battle, a group of NSW inmates recently helped rebuild a dingo shelter destroyed by bushfires, by cutting fallen trees, clearing debris, fixing fences and a sewer line.

Prison staff, inmates with Luci Ellem at a Dingo Sanctuary. Image: Correctional Services NSW

Prison Evacuation Processes Put To The Test

Last week Corrections Victoria took precautionary action to evacuate the minimum-security Beechworth prison.

Queensland authorities were also forced to evacuate two prisons this season –- Numinbah Correctional Centre, a low-security women’s farm, and Palen Creek, a low-security men’s farm, both in the state's south-east.

"In both instances the prisoners were transported to high security centres in Wacol until the danger passed and they could be repatriated to the farms," a spokesperson from the Queensland Department of Justice and Community Safety told 10 daily.

Zoe Simmons


What It's Like To Watch Your Home Town Burn

The photos don’t do it justice.

In NSW, between November and January, three prisons were forced to evacuate. First Glen Innes Correctional Centre, then Oberon Correctional Centre and Mannus Correctional Centre.

Fires also threatened two other prisons housing some of the state's worst criminals. One grassfire came within 100 metres of Lithgow prison’s perimeter walls but the justice department said there were no plans to evacuate either Lithgow or South Coast correctional centres.

The state government has been under pressure by relatives of prisoners to relocate the inmates.

"Large maximum-security centres like Lithgow and South Coast are made of concrete and steel and both these prisons are surrounded by large outer concrete walls ... inmates are safe and best contained at the centres," the spokeswoman said.

Kennedy said that when it comes to maximum security jails, it's often best to leave prisoners there.

"They have zones on the outside of the prison that are able to be secured very easily and its about surveillance. As well there are not a lot of trees for better visibility and often there are also brick wall perimeters," he said.

He said these jails also have fire brigades on-site and prison officers trained to put out fires.

If there was a need to move maximum security prisoners in NSW, neither the prisoners or public would not be notified.

"The state has the right to move prisoners whenever they want and they don't have to give prisoners notice that they are going to move them. Normally in maximum security, they don't want people on the outside to know and risk a prison van being intercepted during re-location."

"But once they get where they are going they can make a phone call to tell family where they are."

He said in most cases, there are enough secure vehicles to move people en mass "at any given moment".



What Drives People To Become Pen Pals With Criminals?

Australians are writing to prisoners overseas as "it takes less time for an inmate in the U.S. or UK to receive a letter from me than it does for an Australian inmate".

Contact the author