Former Arizona inmates get second chance working as wildland firefighters

Arizona has 12 to 20-person inmate crews who serve as wildland firefighters across the state.
Updated: May. 19, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- From felons to wildland firefighters, Arizona’s Family is getting to know firefighters on the front lines that are getting a second chance at life. Arizona has 12 to 20-person inmate crews who serve as wildland firefighters across the state. Prisoners join these crews while serving time and, if successful, graduate and continue it as a career that can change their lives.

In Peeple’s Valley, about two hours northwest of Phoenix, a crew of wildland firefighters are working to cut down vegetation ahead of what could be a busy fire season. But they didn’t start their firefighting career like others. “I was out breaking the law. I ended up going to prison and landed on the Luis complex in Buckeye,” said Steven Cranford, a former inmate-turned wildland firefighter.

Cranford and Stephen Morrow both served time in prison for low-level offenses. But they had a choice: serve time or serve the public. “I literally just walked up to some of the guys on the fire crew and asked what it was about, and every one of them said the exact same thing; “it will change your life.’ It’s brutally hard, incredibly intense, but if you could get through it, then your life will be changed,” Morrow explained.

Prison inmates can apply to be part of a wildland firefighting crew through a partnership with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the Arizona Department of Corrections. “You come out of that program, and you’re pretty much a changed person,” Morrow said.

Cranford and Morrow graduated from the Luis Prison fire crew and now work full-time with the Peeple’s Valley Fire Department. “I was in for about six months before I got on the crew, and for the next four years, I was on the crew,” Morrow said.

Cranford, who was serving a three-year sentence, says the crew changed his life. “The day the officers came over to interview for that job, it was like a switch flipped when they told me on paper I was perfect on the job. It was an instant change for me,” he explained.

The men and women are cutting down vegetation that could spark a fire at any point. They are out five days a week for 10 hours a day, cutting down 70,000 acres worth of field, and they could even be deployed anywhere across the country if a fire sparks.

The man who helped get them to where they are now knows exactly where they came from. James Robbins is a battalion chief with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. He, too, served time in prison. “I was a drug dealer at the time,” Robbins said. “I ended up in Winslow, and they had a fire crew.”

Robbins joined a wildland crew as a felon, then graduated and became a crew boss. “I’m just giving it back; someone gave that to me, too,” he said. “It’s incredible how much of James is instilled into that crew,” Cranford said. “The things he taught everybody continues to get passed down and always will.”

These men and women take pride in how far they have come. Many say they had fallouts with their family while they went to prison and have now reconnected with friends and family and fixed relationships.

They say they are grateful for their second chance. “There is nothing in this world that could make me mess this up,” Cranford said. “They don’t see our past. They know where we come from, but they don’t see our past.” “It’s by far the greatest thing I’ve ever done and keeps me in focus and in line,” Morrow said.

Robbins says there are certain crimes you cannot commit to be on a fire crew. He also says the success rate once people leave the program is high. They can go on to be a part of hotshot crews or even the federal side.