SAN LUIS OBISBO, Calif. — Just over a week ago, on Wednesday January 4, a California inmate firefighter, Crisanto Leo Lionell, died a natural and unforeseeable death at the age of 54 during his daily training exercises. Although the autopsy results give out little to no information as to his actual cause of death, the overall consensus is that the inmate’s sudden loss of consciousness and eventual death occurred naturally and was not a direct result of the training he was undergoing at the time. These military type callisthenic workouts are a norm at camps like the Cuesta Conservation and Fire Camp, where inmates like Leo—who was admitted in February of 2010—are put through a screening process; if all goes well, they are given extensive responsibilities within the field of firefighting. With those responsibilities comes a sense of freedom vastly different than that of the more gritty general population, including the will to come and go from their much-improved dorms as they please (once off duty), the lack of confining walls, and above all else a sense of comradery and purpose.
Inmate Crisanto Leo Lionell—whom most knew as Leo—was one of the hundreds of inmates who the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation’s (the CDCR) admitted into their inmate Firefighter Training Program, where low-custody, non-violent offenders are given the chance to improve themselves inside and out by training to become state certified firefighters. And although the CDCR is keeping Leo’s personal info closely under wraps, the overall experience inmates have within these camps is completely constructive and works towards invigorating inmates with a newfound vivacity for life.
Inmates like Leo are initially put in a general population setting—the isolated cells, the racial tension, gang activity, drug smuggling and consumption, as well as a slew of other hardships—where they have the option to engage in various educational classes and vocational programs to help better themselves. At this point, Leo and other inmates either choose to wither away in their cells or to excel in one of the various program offered by the CDCR, whether it be gaining one’s GED, receiving one’s masonry, carpentry or metalworking certificates, or even taking college level classes geared towards teaching inmates how to operate in our working society.
One of the more innovative, cost-efficient, and above all enriching programs that the CDCR has to offer is the Firefighter Training Program that Leo was a part of, which ushers inmates into one of the dozens of Conservation Camps jointly run by CAL FIRE and the CDCR that actually have their trained inmates go out into the surrounding communities to fight forest and brush fires, work on repairing flood damage, sandbag mudslides, and otherwise take care of any natural hazards, such as flammable brush along the roadsides, that could possibly lead to blazing fires and/or damage to the community.