One day last summer, a suspected Aryan Brotherhood prison gang member got hold of a cell phone and called a friend to break him out of a minimum-security conservation camp in Nevada City, Calif.
Once free, 36-year-old Jeffory Shook --"one of the most violent and dangerous suspects we've encountered in a long time," a sheriff in Placer County, Calif., once called him -- began a four-week crime spree, stealing cars and leading officers on dangerous chases through four counties.
No one was hurt in Shook's escape. But San Francisco police officer Bryan Tuvera was killed in a December 2006 encounter with a camp escapee. Tuvera's partner returned fire, killing the escapee.
While those escapes were unusual, the decision to let violent convicts serve part of their time working under light guard in neighborhoods and rural communities is not, according to an investigation by the Record Searchlight of Redding, Calif.
At any given time, at least 800of the California camps' 4,000-plus inmates, or one in five, have violent criminal histories. This contradicts state officials' claims that only "carefully-screened," non-violent, low-risk inmates are allowed inside the state's 41 minimum-security conservation camps.
California's experience may presage a problem for other states, which increasingly rely on low-security solutions for the nation's burgeoning inmate populations.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, prison populations in recent years have swollen to more than 1.5 million inmates, more than double the number imprisoned in 1990.
Federal and state authorities opened 155 new minimum-security facilities between 2000 and 2005 to accommodate some of the growth. The number of medium-and maximum-security sites has held steady.
Eight months after Shook's escape, California officials have done nothing to change their policies.
Harriet Salarno, chairwoman of Crime Victims United of California, said it's disturbing that inmates with violent pasts are being placed in situations where "they can easily escape," she said. "They should be within the prisons' walls."
The Record Searchlight's analysis of primary offenses of conservation camp inmates between 2005 and 2010 shows:
-- At least 20 percent of camp inmates at any given time had been convicted of violent crimes such as robberies, car jacking, assaults or altercations with police.
-- More than 200 inmates had been convicted of violent crimes against police. Some crimes involved firearms or left officers injured. More than 30 inmates had been convicted of injuring or killing someone in police chases.
-- Fourteen were convicted of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Officials pulled another inmate from camp after he was charged with murder; he was convicted and is back in prison. He'd been in camp while serving time for a lesser charge, a prison spokeswoman said.
-- Two inmates had been convicted of kidnapping. Four had been convicted of hostage taking.
-- Fifteen had been convicted specifically of committing street-gang related crimes.
The camps' growing numbers of violent inmates raise alarms with some lawmakers, who say California's state and local officials have become reliant on cheap labor and fire protection.
While yellow-clad, paid state firefighters hold the hoses and drive fire engines, orange-garbed inmate fire crews do much of the grunt work, cutting fire lines with hand tools and falling burned trees with chain saws. In the off season, they pick up trash along the state highways, cut fire breaks and fill sandbags at floods.
California inmates work an average of 10 million work hours per year, saving taxpayers more than $80 million annually, prison officials said.
Still, "these are the same people who we're putting an ax or a chain saw in their hands," said Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko.
The state corrections department website paints a very different picture of the typical camp inmate.
"Only minimum custody inmates -- both male and female -- may participate in the Conservation Camps Program," the department's website says. "To be eligible, they must be physically fit and have no history of violent crime including kidnapping, sex offenses, arson or escape."
Pressed last month about the newspaper's findings, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation representatives repeatedly denied that violent inmates were placed at the camps.
"My understanding is ... if inmates are considered violent they're not allowed," said spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
The officials questioned whether the newspaper's interpretation of violent or dangerous crimes fit with the state's legal definition of what constitutes a dangerous inmate.
According to prison officials and inmate classification documents, prisoners qualify for camps through a point system designed to promote good behavior and weed out dangerous offenders.
Adult inmates selected for camp have average sentences of less than two years, and they spend an average eight months in camp, officials say.
The corrections department's own inmate classification records indicate an inmate can gain faster camp placement if there's a "shortage of camp qualified inmates."
But fire camp commanders soon may face a labor shortage. To reduce prison overcrowding and trim the state's budget, Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month signed a law that will shift the lowest-risk inmates -- like many of those serving sentences at the camps -- to the custody of the state's 58 counties.
Jim Nielsen, a Republican assemblyman and former president of California's Board of Parole and Prison Terms, said budget cuts might prompt prison officials to place dangerous inmates in fire camps -- especially if the safest inmates are sent back to local jails.
"Whatever we've got now," Nielsen said, "it's only going to get vastly worse."
(Contact Ryan Sabalow of the Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight at email@example.com.)