From Felon to Firefighter, program helps former inmates

From Felon to Firefighter

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, within three years of being released from prison one in three former inmates will return to prison.


The inmate fire program hopes to change those numbers as they work with inmates to become fire fighters. 


"They get firefighting experience they get the training that is needed and they can take this to the outside," says David Birtcher with the Yuma Forestry Division.


Inmates only make a dollar $1.50 an hour. Birtcher says the experience they learn out in the field is more valuable. Giving inmates an opportunity to gain experience in the field and keep them away from coming back to jail.


"The recent rate of guys coming back into the system is extremely low," says Birtcher regarding the inmate fire program.


Rocky Ortiz, a former inmate is an example of that. From felon to fire engine boss, he's turned his life around.


I gave myself the best opportunity possible to make myself successful when I get out," says Ortiz. 


Ortiz says he didn't have it easy, homeless at 14 years old, which lead him down a dark path.


"Then your on the streets and homeless the people that you tend to please are people that are of the streets," said Ortiz.


After serving time he let fate decide where he'd end up by closing his eyes and picking a brochure pamphlet. That fate turned out to lead him into his fire career. Although he said at the start he felt like quitting.


"I felt like quitting everyday. To go from an orange jumpsuit into a fire fighters outfit. To go out there and be in that situation from day one to go and hike a mountain with a 45 pound pack on you and swinging a tool. It was very hard at first," said Ortiz.


The fire inmate program hires up to 20 inmates at a time, assisting in wild fires across Arizona.


"They're not hard core criminals either, these guys are just guys that made mistakes," said Birtcher.


Mistakes that Ortiz says he was able to move forward from.


"The biggest thing that kept me moving forward was putting faith in the system. The program was put there to rehabilitate us so that's what I wanted to take advantage of," said Ortiz.



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