Months after five convicts were killed fighting Arizona's largest-ever forest fire, state prison officials still seem to be acting like grinches. The Department of Corrections reneged on a promise to pay funeral expenses and is fighting an attempt by Republican lawmakers to provide a piddling amount of compensation to the inmates' families.
Inmate advocates charge that money raised to help the dead firefighters' families was spent instead on the purchase of an aging fire truck and a plaque. "People thought they were donating money to the families," says Donna Hamm, president of the inmate advocacy group Middle Ground, "and now DOC was going to use the money to buy a truck? What kind of priorities are those?"
The five inmates and a prison supervisor died June 26 while battling the "Dude" fire on the Mogollon Rim. The family of the supervisor was eligible for $100,000 under state-employee insurance and worker's compensation. But the inmates' families were eligible for nothing. Retiring GOP lawmaker Jenny Norton is pushing legislation to provide burial expenses for the inmates.
Soon after the fire, corrections officials launched a Firefighter's Burial Fund earmarked for the families, placing contribution jars in prisons and in state buildings. But in July, DOC announced that although more than $11,000 had been raised, the bulk of the money would be used to purchase a used fire truck for the Perryville-San Pedro Firefighters, complete with a plaque listing the names of the dead prisoners.
DOC spokesperson Michael Arra says $19,000 was eventually raised through the donation jars and split in late October among the five families. He insists that the money for the fire truck came from a separate fund called the Firefighters' Memorial Fund, established at the same time as the burial fund and backed by corporate contributions. Arra says "not one cent of the money collected in the burial fund jars was used for the truck." The confusion surrounding the truck, he says, comes from the similar names of the two funds and because the Memorial Fund was "low-key and low visibility."
Hamm counters that the Memorial Fund suddenly appeared only after inmate advocates complained that the money in the original Burial Fund was being incorrectly used. Hamm agrees with Arra on one thing: The Memorial Fund for the fire truck was "low-key."
"It was so low-key no one had ever heard of it," she says. "People who contributed thought they were giving to help the families."
Donna Gahagans, the president of the Prisoner Family Connection Agency, an inmate-family liaison group, wonders why the money wasn't instead used to help pay immediate funeral expenses.
"Even if there were two funds," she says, "what is the point of buying an antique fire truck to fight structural fires? That old ladder truck is basically useless to fight the kind of fires the inmates died fighting. There were certainly more pressing needs at the moment than that truck."
For the family of James Ellis, one of the inmates killed on the blazing ridge near Payson, the most pressing need was finding a funeral home. When Ellis' remains were brought to Tucson in late June, the family asked they be taken to Evergreen Mortuary.
Evergreen president Bill Addison says he suspected his company wouldn't get paid by the family for its services, but accepted the Ellis case because "it was the right thing to do, and someone had to do it."
Addison says he went ahead with the funeral after Perryville-San Pedro correctional official Irv Matthews confirmed that the state intended to pick up the bill. But a DOC spokesperson called back in July to say that the state wasn't going to pay.
"They said they couldn't do it because of legal constraints," Addison says.
Arra admits that DOC officials said "something to lead the funeral home and [Ellis' family] to mistakenly believe that the state was going to pay." After consulting with the attorney general, Arra says, the department was forced to cancel the offer, because "DOC money isn't budgeted for something like that."
Hamm says it wasn't the first time DOC made a promise it didn't keep.
"The men were sort of pumped up to do this job," she says. "They were told, `When you leave these prison gates, you aren't prisoners, you are firefighters. You will be treated equally.' But it turned out that the only thing they had an equal right to do was die."
That inequity, what Hamm calls a "pattern of insensitivity" on the part of the Arizona Department of Corrections, prompted Norton, a Tempe Republican, to launch hearings into inmate compensation. She's chairing an interim committee assigned to write a bill that would require the state to pay funeral expenses for inmate firefighters.
"The families of these men suffered the same loss as anyone would in these circumstances," Hamm says. "But they don't get the same benefits. Two thousand dollars or so is a pitiful sum when you think about it."
The total cost for the five burials last summer is estimated by Norton to be about $10,000 to $15,000.
"It was tragedy enough what happened to those men and their families," Norton says. "But when I heard DOC wouldn't even pay to bury them, I was just sickened."
The Perryville-San Pedro minimum-security unit sent a nineteen-man crew--seventeen inmates and two staff supervisors--to help thousands of firefighters from throughout the Southwest battle the Dude fire, which ravaged thousands of square miles of National Forest land. The five inmates--James Denney, Alex Contreras, James Ellis, Joseph Chacon, and Curtis Springfield--and their supervisor Sandra Bachman were killed when the blaze suddenly shifted and engulfed them.
"You know," Norton says, "we all screw up. We probably all belong in prison for one thing or another. And these guys gave their lives to fight that fire for us. The least we can do is bury them, for heaven's sake."
Staunch House belt tighteners like Mark Killian and Lela Steffey say they support the plan and call the required funding a "drop in the bucket."
But Norton did not seek re-election this fall and will not be around to shepherd the bill through the next legislative session. Norton's departure, combined with objections raised by DOC, may make it tough for prisoners' families to get even minimal compensation.
The DOC's Arra says that while corrections officials support some kind of compensation for inmate families "in principle," they oppose Norton's bill in its current form, charging that its passage could drown the state in a wave of lawsuits from prisoners and their families, all claiming they deserve compensation for death or injuries sustained while "in the line of duty."
Arra says, "There are thousands of prisoners working in Arizona on the highways, in kitchens and everywhere else, and every time one of them cuts their finger with a potato peeler they could claim they were injured in the line of duty."
Arra suggests that the bill instead require death benefits for inmates killed "in meritorious service to the state," a term he says would cover firefighters but prevent "frivolous" claims.
"We can't establish any kind of employee-employer relationship here," he says. "They are prisoners, after all."
"People who contributed thought they were giving to help the families.