As It Happens

Wildfires, pandemic dual threat to California prisoners, says inmate's daughter

Kirsten Roehler worries that the state isn't doing enough to ensure the health and safety of her father, who is currently in a prison that's seen more than 100 cases of COVID-19 and is situated dangerously close to wildfires sweeping the state.

Kirsten Roehler worries about her father, who is in prison in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak

A firefighter watches the Apple Fire in Cherry Valley, Calif., on Aug. 1, 2020. Families of prisoners in the state are raising the alarm that authorities aren't doing enough to ensure their health and safety in the face of both the nearby wildfires and outbreaks of COVID-19. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)


Kirsten Roehler worries that the state of California isn't doing enough to ensure the health and safety of her father, who is incarcerated in a prison that's seen more than 100 cases of COVID-19 and is situated dangerously close to wildfires sweeping the state.

"I just feel like the way that they handled it was a disaster," she told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

Roehler said her father is 78 and has heart and lung diseases as well as asthma, making him sensitive to the billowing ash and smoke in the region as well as vulnerable to the worst of COVID-19.

Her father, Fred Roehler, is in California State Prison-Los Angeles County in Lancaster, the site of more than 140 positive cases of the coronavirus, according to the Guardian.

She says he recently wrote a letter saying he could smell smoke in his cell, and so shut his air vent and wears a mask to cope.

"He has actually been sick before, and I just know the medical care that they get in there is less than ideal. I just don't think that, you know, treating prisoners is a priority," she said.

Kirsten Roehler, right, and her father Fred Roehler, who is incarcerated in a prison close to the wildfires. (Submitted by Kirsten Roehler)

California Governor Gavin Newsom said Friday that the number of wildfires in the state has grown to nearly 560, from 376, after thunderstorms sparked nearly 12,000 lighting strikes on bone-dry trees and brush. Thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes.

Two prisons close to areas in evacuation zones — California Medical Facility and Solano state prison — have not followed suit. Critics accuse prison authorities of putting inmates in danger by not relocating them, the Guardian reported.

At the same time, the pandemic has also hurt the state's firefighting capacity, as thousands of prisoners have become a vital but low-paid anti-wildfire workforce.

Roehler says her father is remaining inside his cell for 22 hours a day to avoid the wildfires and to lower his chances of coming into contact with anyone with COVID-19.

She wants to know whether the prison is doing anything to ensure inmates' safety beyond confining them to their cells.

A forest burns as the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire advances, Thursday in Bonny Doon, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

In July, the state of California released thousands of prisoners early, to try to control the spread of COVID-19. 

Roehler says that her father is not eligible for early release because he is serving a life sentence without chance of parole.

He has applied to be released under executive clemency, she said, which is granted by the governor in recognition of a person's "efforts in self-development." He remains uncertain about the status of his application. 

She isn't confident in authorities' ability to potentially transport inmates to a safer location, either.

"I'm imagining hundreds of inmates, you know, in a bus or a van. You know, it's a nightmare."

Clouds of smoke, raining ash

On top of concerns for her father, Roehler is continually taking stock of whether her own home lays in the path of the encroaching flames.

Roehler lives just across the street from her local county's evacuation centre, so she's pretty sure she is in a relatively safe spot. It doesn't ease all of her worries, however.

Ash from the nearby wildfires settle on top of Kirsten Roehler's car, near her home in Soquel, Santa Cruz County, California. (Submitted by Kirsten Roehler)

"When I look out my window, it's very smoky with a little bit of ash raining down," she said.

She also lives on a farm, so has been working on plans to get her resident animals to safety if they're forced to leave.

"We have over 20 goats and four dogs and 30 chickens and a half dozen cats. So we are definitely thinking about how we would do that and where we would go," she said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.


  • An earlier version of this story stated that Fred Roehler was deemed ineligible for clemency from California prison. In fact, the fate of his clemency application remains uncertain.
    Aug 24, 2020 12:47 PM ET
  • An earlier version of this story reported that California granted clemency to 21 inmates in June who were medically vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. While this move was part of an effort to reduce prison overcrowding during the pandemic, the clemency was granted to a wide range of inmates in recognition of their "efforts in self-development."
    Aug 24, 2020 12:47 PM ET

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