Cleaning Up for Society

Construction crews along Hwy. 243 appear normal

By Marcia E. Gawecki

“Be Prepared to Stop,” a familiar bright orange sign, warns motorists of a construction crew ahead. CalTrans, Idyllwild’s savior during inclimate weather, is preparing the roads for the rain and snow. Today, Oct. 12, there’s a slowdown on Hwy. 243 from Idyllwild to Hemet for about a three-mile stretch (from mile marker 74:53:25 to mile marker 74: 55:50).

The wait lasted approximately seven minutes, however, it must’ve seemed like eternity for the group that was waiting to go next.

You see, I was the last car in the caravan behind the “Follow Me” truck.  Just for fun, I lagged behind so that the car ahead was well out of sight. By doing this, I made more than a few motorists wait longer, I probably made a few guards sweat.

Where is the last car? Why is she taking so long? Why did she wave at the prisoners? Is she really taking pictures?

Wait a minute, what prisoners?

Dressed in neon orange and green, looking just like CalTrans workers, are select members of the Bautista Fire Crew. They’re not construction workers or firemen, but inmates from the Larry D. Smith Correctional Center in Banning. They travel in a bright red fire truck that has “Bautista Fire Crew” printed on the side. They are heavily guarded by wardens from the same prison, also dressed in neon green and orange and impersonating CalTrans workers, except that they’re carrying radios and rifles.

“Nope, they’re just CalTrans managers,” you might argue. “Look at the logo on the trucks!”

That’s right, when the Bautista Fire Crew is working, there are always lots of CalTrans trucks around. Most of them are situated at various points along the road, not to observe the work in progress, but the convicts.

Long lines of motorists wait patiently for the clean up crews

Are they whacking the weeds like they should? Are they talking to any motorists? Are they going to escape?

If  you want to make those “CalTrans” guards nervous, try taking pictures of the Bautista crew as you drive by. After all, you’re a citizen, and it’s a free country! You can take pictures of the scenery, and anyone working in it if you’d like. But those guards are likely having silent fits (and memorizing your license plate number!)

In exchange for manual labor, such as weedwacking, shoveling, raking, or even fighting fires, these guys likely will get a reduced sentence. Keep in mind, these are not hardened criminals who have killed anyone or set any place on fire. They’re awaiting arraignments, hearings, trials, and sentencing, or they’ve been sentenced to serve a county jail term.

These are inmates from a medium-security prison that are deemed eligible to work and interact with the public.

Because for a brief moment, when you drive by today, you’re interacting with them. Dressed up in their neon CalTrans vests, these 15 prisoners look like normal workers. But normal workers don’t look right into each car, and straight into your eyes as you pass by. They’re busy working on the road. But these guys, for their free labor and payback to society, are also checking you out. Because, for a very long time, all they’ve seen are the same bunch of guys from the same correctional center.

There’s been a long history of inmates working along Hwy. 243, according to the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility web site. In fact, it proudly mentions that prison chain gangs built Hwy. 243 in the 1930s.  That makes sense now. As you loop back and forth along Hwy. 243, from Idyllwild towards Banning, you can’t help but get a scenic view of the prison every time. It’s as if the road was paying homage to it.

The first time I heard of the Bautista Fire Crew was about three years ago when I covered a brush fire on Hwy. 243. I was a freelance writer for the Idyllwild Town Crier at the time, and eager to please. Covering a midnight brush fire was front-page material, I thought.

There must’ve been 15 trucks in all. The fire was under control, but still burning a little. I reported on what I saw, took a lot of dark pictures and even talked to some of the firemen. In the last paragraph, I mentioned that the Bautista Fire Crew, that was still battling the blaze, appeared to be working the hardest.

Motorists obediently follow the "Follow Me" truck past the convicts

The next day, my editor took out the reference.

“Why did you do that?” I asked. It didn’t seem fair that the other firemen should take all of the credit.

“Because no one wants to read about convicts,” she answered.

I walked away in silence, shocked that the state would use convicts to fight fires.

“But, why not, if they’re willing?” I reasoned later.

Apparently, a lot of people in Idyllwild know about the Bautista Fire Crew, and are OK with it.

“They get out of prison for the day, and California gets some free labor,” they’ve said. “Who else wants to whack weeds and shovel dirt along the highway?”

So now you know. The next time you see one of those bright orange “Be Prepared to Stop” signs along Hwy. 243, you’ll be looking at the situation with new eyes. Where you once only saw CalTrans workers, you’ll now notice the guards, the inmates and the trucks.

It’s not prudent to lag behind the “Follow Me” truck, or take pictures of the convicts. The CalTrans crew, or prison guards, won’t like it. And you don’t want to make those carrying guns nervous.

For more information, contact the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility, located at 1627 S. Hargrove Street in Banning, (951) 922-7300.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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