SALT LAKE CITY – Idaho is scrutinizing its program for temporarily releasing prison inmates to help battle wildfires after an inmate was charged with raping a woman working at a remote base camp in Utah.
Idaho prison officials are working with the state’s lands department as they review which inmates are allowed to serve, the training they receive and how they are deployed, said Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray. Five Idaho crews were returned to prison after the charge was filed last week.
Most states in the U.S. West have similar programs allowing low-level offenders to be temporarily released to aid in firefighting efforts. In California, hundreds of minimum-security inmates fought on the front lines of the state’s largest-ever blaze this year.
Idaho inmate Ruben Hernandez, 27, is set make his first court appearance Wednesday on a felony rape charge alleging he assaulted the woman after she rejected his advances Aug. 29.
He was part of a 10-person crew which cooked and did janitorial work. They were supervised by two Idaho correctional officers.
Inmates are typically allowed to move about fairly freely, said Sanpete County attorney Kevin Daniels. Hernandez doesn’t have a history of assault or similar crimes, and was less than a year from a parole date on a drug charge.
“Historically, there’s not been a whole lot of problems. This is very, very atypical,” the prosecutor said.
No attorney was immediately listed for Hernandez in Utah court records, and a message left for one of his previous attorneys was not immediately returned. He is being held without bail in Utah.
The woman told police Hernandez had been flirting with her and asked for her number. She gave him another number to get him to leave her alone, according to charging documents filed Friday.
One morning as she was sitting in a wash trailer watching a movie, Hernandez entered, exposed himself and asked for oral sex, authorities said. He assaulted her after she again rejected him, according to charging documents.
She froze, afraid to scream or stop him because she knew he was a prisoner and didn’t want to get hurt, the charges say. She told a friend, who reported the assault to base-camp security guards.
The inmate crew was part of a team of more than 200 people working the so-called Coal Hollow Fire at the time. The lightning-sparked blaze started Aug. 4 and torched about 47 square miles (122 square kilometers). It’s now about 80 percent contained.
Though assaults are uncommon, inmates have previously walked away from firefighting assignments. In October 2017, another Idaho inmate was missing for three hours after he walked away from a crew in California. He told officers he got lost while on a bathroom break.