SLO prison teaching inmates firefighting, life skills

SLO prison teaching inmates...

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - Many of you have seen firefighters in orange jumpsuits working on wildfires here on the Central Coast. Orange means they are state inmates - learning a unique skill while serving their prison sentence. 

KCOY 12 took an in-depth look at what California prisons are doing to prepare inmates for life outside the metal bars.

These prisoners, could possibly be your future neighbors.

"I ended up in here, I was actually doing robberies," inmate Jamal Ross said. 

Jamal Ross is doing time for robberies - Bonnie and Clyde style, with his girlfriend.

"Thought we were having fun, I was out on the streets," Ross said. 

That fun came to an end when he was busted 5 years ago.

He was just 23 years old - and is losing an entire decade of his life behind bars. 

"My 20's," Ross said. 

- But Jamal wasn't always going down a bad path.

"I grew up in a nice home, my mom.. she raised me," Ross said. 

Jamal's father was in prison while he was growing up.

"My other side of my family was "street" so I sort of wanted to explore it," Ross said. 

The first couple years in prison were tough for Jamal.

"My mom, my mom has been here the whole time, she comes and visits me as much as she can," Ross said. 

It's been his mom and the opportunities he's had while in prison that have been driving him towards his release date.

"So I've been on the fire crew since 2014," Ross said. 

He's talking about a fire fighting crew. One first formed at the California Men's Colony IN 1962. It's called Cuesta Camp. Qualified, proven inmates, like Jamal, are part of the crew and help fight back the flames during fire season.

"I'm 'first saw', I run the saw, pretty much direct the line," Ross said. 

Most recently, Jamal and about a hundred inmates were on the front lines battling the Chimney Fire near Lake Nacimiento.

"I'm grateful to be able to repay with this time and my actions," Ross said. 

- But these inmates will tell you, they're learning much more than how to cut down trees and put out fires. They're learning skills that can be applied to all walks of life once they're released.

"Just the whole work ethic and working hard for this community and California period," inmate Anthony Phillips said. 

"(Working) with other people, humbleness," Ross said. 

Not only is this Fire Camp giving inmates a chance to learn life skills, an inmate had an opportunity to save a firefighter's life - and he did just that.

"Pulled him to safety and covered him," inmate Robert Kass said. 

A tree came crashing down. 43-year-old convicted robber, Robert Kass didn't hesitate and saved a Cal Fire captain's life.

Reporter: You were a hero..

Kass: I don't know.. I think God used me, he gets all the glory for that, that was God.

"Actually dove on top of him and covered him as the tree fell right there, so - it saved his life," Cal Fire Captain John Schlickeiser said. 

Robert's heroism may get him six months off his sentence.

Cal Fire Captain John Schlickeiser says this Fire Camp has helped inmates find meaning in their lives - inmates like Louie Rojas.

"Well in 2009 I was involved in a vehicle accident and killed my buddy and got served vehicular manslaughter," inmate Louis Rojas said. 

At the time of this interview, the 31-year-old convicted drunk driver, had just a few days left on his nine year sentence.

"For people out there on the streets who are drinking and driving, I definitely wouldn't advise it because you could take that father, that mother, kid, that grandmother's life, just like that," Rojas said. 

Rojas says reconnecting with his children will be his number one priority.

Prison officer Trad Eilers is hoping the Fire Camp and the other prison programs will put Rojas and other inmates on the path to success once they're out.

"These guys have actually been successful, they'll call back to the camp and let us know how they're doing in the community," prison officer Trad Eilers said. 

The prison also has a program with nearby Cuesta College. Many of the inmates are working on their Associates degrees.

"Now I've dedicated myself to studying and becoming a better being," Ross said.  

Ross is now thinking about becoming a firefighter when he gets out of prison.

"I have a few captains that have already offered me recommendations which I appreciate from them," Ross said. 

He regrets the robberies earlier in his life but says for some strange reason it was all meant to happen, to teach him how to be better.

"I'm very at peace, because I feel like I'm growing," Ross said. 

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