Inmates work in forest to hasten release |

Inmates work in forest to hasten release

Kirk Mitchell
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
AP/The Denver Post, Helen H. RichardsonIn the forests near Silverthorne, Tano Torrez, front, cuts a limb from a tree as Shawn Gallegos, back, holds the tree to keep it steady.

SILVERTHORNE (AP) ” Colorado convicts armed with chain saws are cutting lodgepole in beetle-decimated forests and, in doing so, shaving time from their sentences under a new alliance between state prisons and federal forest officials.

“The last 10 years, I’ve been behind razor wire,” said Daniel Martinez, 29, who is serving a prison term for menacing. “Now I’m able to enjoy nature, and it’s going to get me back to my family faster.”

Martinez is one of two dozen minimum-security prisoners from Buena Vista Correctional Facility who for several weeks have been sleeping in tents in the Arapaho National Forest north of Silverthorne while clearing pines whose needles have turned red under the assault of bark beetles.

In the wake of a seven-year drought that has weakened pines in three national forests in Colorado, the beetles have destroyed 1.5 million acres of lodgepole, said Jim Krugman of the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service closed 38 camping areas in Colorado over the past several years because groves of dead trees are a safety hazard, said Clint Kyle, bark-beetle incident commander for the agency.

“There’s a great risk that a wind will blow them down,” Krugman said. “Our concern is for safety.”

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Colorado Department of Corrections officials this year offered the services of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team for a fee that covers the expense of guarding, feeding, paying and equipping the inmates, said Jack Laughlin, service division manager of Colorado Correctional Industries, which runs the program.

“It’s a win-win-win type of thing,” Laughlin said.

Colorado pays inmates up to $3 a day, and they can earn a portion of a monthly bonus paid by the Forest Service, he said.

Krugman said federal officials get services at half what it would cost privately.

It’s not easy work, Laughlin said.

The crews work up to 14 hours a day, cutting logs with chain saws, carrying the wood to trucks and stacking branches into huge piles.

Two staff members supervise 24 inmates, Laughlin said.

But Martinez said there is no incentive to escape, though it would be easy enough to do.

“If you get caught, you can do 12 years,” he said.

In six years, not one of the 300 members of the inmate firefighting crews has escaped, Laughlin said.

Only 25 percent of the offenders who have since been released have violated their parole terms or committed new crimes, Laughlin said.

Martinez heard about the program when he was in a prison on the Eastern Plains. He asked to be transferred to Buena Vista to join and had to go six months without a disciplinary action before he could be considered.

“The rules are strict,” Martinez said. “You can get written up for not tucking in your shirt. But it’s a privilege to be in this program.”

For every day they participate, inmates are credited for an extra day off their sentence, Laughlin said.

“At the end of the day,” Martinez said, “I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

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