Arizona is starting a program designed to help newly released prisoners assimilate into their communities through fighting wildfires.
The program is expected to begin in the next two months. And even though the first team of professional firefighters to be made solely of former inmates hasn't been chosen yet, administrators already refer to it with a term of endearment: The Phoenix Crew.
Named for the state's capital as well as the mythological bird reborn from the ashes of its old life, the $1.5 million joint initiative between Arizona's Department of Corrections and Department of Forestry and Fire Management is a passion project of the state's first-term Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
"It's opportunities like this where corrections truly becomes corrections," Ducey said during his State of the State Address in January.
Through the program, non-violent, low-risk ex-prisoners will be taught to fight wildfires and undertake fire prevention tasks, building on an initiative that has been offered to inmates for more than 25 years.
"And we need more of them, so that over time, we can turn the tide and reduce our prison population, provide that second chance, while also protecting public safety," Ducey said.
It also could help with a growing environmental problem as fires throughout the West have become larger, more frequent, deadlier and costlier.
At the end of August, more than 400,000 acres across the state had been hit by this year's season fire season, the largest area burned since 2011, according to Arizona Public Media.
Former prisoners have to take part in a competitive application process to be selected for the 20-person, full-time crew, Department of Forestry and Fire Management public affairs officer Tiffany Davila said. The recruitment drive also will include a squad boss, a captain, and a superintendent, positions that will be filled by recently released inmates as well.
"There's teamwork, but it also teaches them to be leaders," Davila said. "It empowers them, and they realize, ‘Hey, I can do this. I made a mistake, but I want to make my life better.'"
The crew will be stationed at a base east of Phoenix, where the team will be able to easily travel to fires around Arizona, Davila said.
The idea of tapping prisoners to serve in fire crews is not new. But although California, Oregon and Washington state sporadically integrate ex-inmates into public or private contractor firefighting teams, Arizona is one of the first to start a former-prisoner-only crew.
The strategy, however, has some critics.
Utah's Department of Corrections operated an inmate firefighting program through Utah Correctional Industries "many years ago," according to spokeswoman Maria Peterson. But it was suspended "for a number of reasons," including "high risks, high costs, and little evidence" to show that prisoners who participated "were being employed in the field after release," Peterson said.
James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a criminal justice think tank, says Arizona may encounter problems expanding the initiative as "there can only be so many firefighter positions created before the county agencies get concerned about them encroaching on their turf."
Stefan LoBuglio, of the Council of State Governments' Justice Center says Arizona's initiative is different than state correctional systems that use their inmates for community service projects such as highway litter and park maintenance patrols because the skills developed through those activities are unlikely to "actually lead to post-release employment."
"What's noticeable about this program is that it takes the work experience that people gained while incarcerated and links that to access to real-world job opportunities in the community," LoBuglio said.
One challenge he foresees, though, is that many states have restrictions that prevent people with criminal histories from being considered for public safety roles.
Dave Luttrell, who runs a prisoner firefighting program in Tillamook State Forest in Oregon, adds that other difficulties could include financing after the initial $1.5 million investment and "finding enough properly trained crew bosses."
Regardless, the idea could catch fire. Spokesmen for California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington state say they may consider adopting similar initiatives in the future. Representatives of Nevada did not respond to a request for comment.