By Christopher Zoukis
The Idaho Department of Corrections has recalled its crews of minimum-security inmates sent to fight wildfires in other states after one such inmate was charged with raping a woman working at the base camp of firefighters battling the large Coal Hollow wildfire in Utah.
Most western states use inmates on temporary release to fight wildfires. California sent hundreds of its low-security inmates to battle gigantic wildfires there earlier this year. Utah is an exception: it stopped using its own inmates after some were injured but welcomes inmate crews coming in from other states.
Ruben Hernandez, 27, was part of a 10-member support crew sent from Idaho prisons to provide logistic support with janitorial, maintenance and food preparation and delivery duties, helping combat a large lightning-caused wildfire burning in a remote area south of Salt Lake City. Inmate crew members typically work in teams of two and wear shirts identifying them as inmates.
As part of their continued incarceration, Hernandez’s crew was forbidden to leave the case camp and supervised by two Idaho corrections officers. An Idaho corrections spokesman noted inmate crews are generally allowed great freedom while moving around the base camp where they are running evaporative coolers, hauling trash, cleaning and maintaining the base camp and command center.
Inmates selected for firefighting assignments are volunteers and must be classified as low-risk and non-violent; some have already been rated as acceptable for confinement in community settings. The assignment is generally prized since it’s a chance to be outdoors for extended periods, it pays ($1.25 hourly for Hernandez), and can be evidence of good behavior.
It was the first such assignment for Hernandez, a resident of Blackfoot, Idaho. He had been sentenced to three to seven years in prison after he violated terms of probation for an earlier drug offense, but was eligible for parole next May; he is now being held without bail in Utah, charged by the Sanpete County attorney’s office with felony rape.
On August 29, his ninth day working in the firefighters’ base camp, Hernandez allegedly came across a female worker who was sitting in a wash trailer watching a movie. According to a police report, he exposed himself and made a sexual demand. On earlier days, he had attempted to flirt with her, at one point asking for her phone number (she gave him a number, but it wasn’t hers). Now, again rebuffed, he assaulted her.
The woman later said she was too frightened, knowing he was an inmate, to resist or scream. She later told a friend about the attack, who informed security guards in the base camp.
According to a spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Correction, the agency is now re-examining the way it chooses, prepares and assigns inmates for firefighting and similar duties. It has withdrawn the two 10-man crews and three 20-man crews it had dispatched to fight the giant wildfire that burned for about a month and burned over 47 square miles.
County officials in Utah said the firefighting effort was directed by a team of state and federal agencies, and they were not aware that Idaho inmates were among the around 200 persons fighting the blaze at the time of the claimed attack.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.