California inmate firefighters' sentences extended in release-date confusion

A flaw in the new good-conduct credit program caused some inmates' sentences to be lengthened rather than cut short


By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California prison officials created new good conduct credits in May designed to speed up the releases of more than 76,000 inmates, but one segment of the prison inmate population — inmate firefighters — are seeing the length of their sentences increased, at least on paper, inmate advocates and family members say.

"We've been receiving lots of complaints from people whose loved ones had their release dates lengthened by significant periods of time, sometimes months, if not a year or more," said Don Specter, executive director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office that advocates for inmates.

Inmate firefighters arrive at a 2020 fire scene in California.
Inmate firefighters arrive at a 2020 fire scene in California. (Photo/Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the issue is a misunderstanding. Changes in the system used to calculate projected release dates provided misleading information that is now being addressed.

"On the release date issue, the Department recently transitioned to a new credit calculation system," CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters wrote in an email response to queries from The Sacramento Bee. "In implementing the system, we became aware of a programming modification issue that impacted some projected release dates, and have responded quickly to address the situation.

"We have updated the system and have confirmed it is now calculating release dates in accordance with the methodology that has been in effect since the passage of Proposition 57 in 2017. The dates of those impacted by this issue in the system are being recalculated immediately, and we are communicating with them and their loved ones."

The issue has led to confusion about projected release dates for inmates, with the wife of one California inmate firefighter speculating it was partly an effort by the state to retain as many firefighters as possible for what is expected to be a horrific wildfire year.

"I think it's happening because they want to keep the firefighters there a little bit longer," said Taniesha Moore, whose husband, Donnell Marin, is housed at the Holton Conservation Camp #16 in Sylmar and had been told in April that his projected release date was July 23.

"As of May 1, he had only 84 days left," she said, adding that she spent her savings to rent an apartment in San Diego preparing for his return and scheduled time off from her two jobs to spend time with him once he won release.

But after California prison officials adopted the new emergency rules effective May 1, Marin was told his projected release date had been changed to April 2022 and, later, to September 2022, she said.

Keeping inmates to fight fires 'categorically false'

On Friday, CDCR's inmate locator website still listed September 2022 as his projected release date. But Moore said she heard from a corrections official Friday morning after The Bee began asking questions and was told her husband is expected to be released as originally scheduled later this month.

Corrections officials also were adamant that the issue had nothing to do with a desire to keep firefighting inmates available.

"That is categorically false," Waters wrote. "Our mission as a department is to promote rehabilitation, and incentivize incarcerated people to work on themselves through programming opportunities, so that they can give back to their communities, and become more productive members of society."

Moore said that before Friday CDCR officials responded to her emails saying they are reviewing the matter, but did not explain it.

"CDCR is aware of the concerns received regarding people's release dates and a team of experts is currently looking into the matter," Krissi Khokhobashvili, chief of external affairs, replied in a June 28 email Moore provided to The Sacramento Bee. "I apologize that I do not have more information at this time but I assure you this is a top priority for the Department."

Another email from CDCR Ombudsman Scott Jacobs on June 29 said that he understood "this must be very frustrating for you and your loved one with the dates changing like they are."

"We are aware and have voiced these concerns to CDCR Executive Leadership," Jacobs' email read, adding that the new emergency rules changed calculations.

"Projected release dates are no longer being 'projected,' which 'appears' to have added time," he wrote, and attached a letter sent to all inmates May 7 that said officials will need time to enter information into CDCR computers.

"In order to apply the changes, CDCR's Case Records Services Unit must enter every incarcerated person's information into a new computer system," read the letter from Connie Gipson, director of adult institutions. "This process may take up to eight months to complete."

CDCR says the new rules grant inmates convicted of violent crimes one day of good conduct credit for every two days served, while previously they earned one day of credit for every four days.

Non-violent second- and third-strike offenders who previously earned one day of credit for every three served now get one day of credit for every day served, CDCR says.

The new rules already are the subject of a legal challenge from 44 California district attorneys who say they threaten to allow the early release of 76,000 inmates — some who will see sentences reduced by half, the DAs say.

A lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court to halt the new good credit rules is pending.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Sacramento Chief Deputy DA Rod Norgaard called CDCR's decision to implement the new rules a "self-inflicted gunshot wound" that was done for budgetary reasons to allow California to shut down two prisons.

"This was their own problem," Norgaard said. "They decided to take this route. They decided to shortcut this process.

"They decided not to give victims their day in court."

CDCR, district attorneys await judge's ruling

CDCR counters that Proposition 57 gives the agency the right to create new rules on good conduct credits and that the DA's do not have standing to bring the lawsuit.

Both sides are awaiting a final ruling from a judge on whether a preliminary injunction halting the credit rules for now will be granted.

While that fight goes on, the head of the Prison Law Office said he has asked CDCR to explain how increasing good time credits could result in longer projected sentences, but has not heard back.

"I'm not really sure what the problem is," Specter said. "I think part of the issue is they're calculating the credits differently than they were before ...

"And from what I understand, it's completely contrary to the intent of the regulations, which which was to provide more credits to people to reduce their release date rather than lengthen it."

But Waters said the situation is being straightened out.

"All impacted people will receive their individual updated information as soon as possible," she wrote.

Moore, meanwhile, says she hopes the mix-up has been straightened out and that she will soon be reunited with her husband of 15 years. She says he volunteered to fight fires as part of a lengthy effort to rehabilitate himself through education and work after receiving a 22-year, eight-month sentence stemming from a robbery.

"I know he's incarcerated, but he's a kind-hearted person, he's educated," she said. "He has changed into a person that I knew was always in him and he's just proven it every day. We have been dating since high school, I met him when I was in the 10th grade, and we share one daughter who is 23 years old.

"He's a great father, but how he can father from prison?"

Next: Video: Calif. inmate firefighter takes engine on joyride, crashes

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