Fighting the wildfires while incarcerated

A falling boulder struck Shawna Lynn Jones, 22, in the head on February 25, 2016, while she was fighting the Mulholland Fire in Malibu, California. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security supervise Malibu 13-3, a 12-person crew of inmates who serve as firefighters. Service for the Forests. Jones was the first woman and only the third inmate to die in the conservation camps since they were founded in 1943. Just is an apt word to use considering the cruelty of the system that led to Jones’ death. Writer Jaime Lowe illustrates the injustices that hit Jones and her colleagues in her newly released book Breathing Fire.

In an update to her 2017 New York Times Magazine feature, Lowe examines the fallout from Jones’s death as well as the thousands of women inmates who help fight wildfires in California every year. As of 1980, women have had the option to be fire fighters, just as male inmates have since 1946. Firefighter work programs were considered a matter of fairness by public officials, writes Lowe, and in fact women incarcerated tend to see them as an alternative to inhumane prison conditions. These inmate camp compounds offer better living and food conditions than the state’s prisons, as well as the possibility of earning credits that shorten their sentences. According to Lowe, she got to meet many incarcerated firefighters who were grateful for the work or expressed hope that they might find employment in firefighting or forestry when they get out.

(Photo: Courtesy Macmillan)

The author Lowe opined that professional firefighting in the free world is different from inmates working as firefighters in prisons. “All of the inmates I spoke with saw the benefits of the program, but none of them wanted to volunteer,” Lowe writes, listing the many reasons inmates might find such a dangerous job more desirable than conditions in prison, such as sexual assault, neglect for the sick, or poor nutrition. “Volunteers are incarcerated people who volunteer their services.”

Wildland firefighting, for all its advantages, is certainly not a much more humane alternative to prison. The daily salary for inmate firefighters is just five dollars, plus one dollar per hour they actively fight fires, which includes 24 hours of on-call duty plus active firefighting. During the fire, hand crews hike in and clear vegetation early on, then stomp out embers at the end to clean up. Keith Radey, a camp commander, tells Lowe, “the hand crews are primarily inmates.” Depending on the year, inmates might make up as much as 30 percent of California’s wildland firefighting crews. Though the program involves inmate firefighters who are trained with live fire, no live fire training is conducted. For many of the women, it was their first experience seeing a real fire as they fought it. An erratic fire roars toward a crew of inmates, causing their foremen to tell them they are “seeing things that most fire fighters don’t.”

In a couple of chapters, Lowe chronicles the history of California’s fire program, which has its roots in the state’s slave system. Molly Williams, for example, was the nation’s first female firefighter and previously was enslaved. The man was part of a volunteer firefighter corps, and Williams sometimes stepped in for crew members during fires. Despite the questionable power dynamics of her position, historians often portray Williams’s 19th-century heroism as completely voluntary. Construction of the Pacific Coast Highway and the westward expansion of Los Angeles were made possible with inmates’ labor during the 1900s. Since 1980, the number of women incarcerated in the U.S. increased more than 750 percent from 1980 to 2019. These increases were mostly driven by the war on drugs and three-strikes laws (still in place in California) that give repeat offenders life sentences.

Since the 1960s, the number of incarcerated firefighters in California has doubled, along with the inmate population. Conservation camps have always been lauded as cost-effective solutions to prison overcrowding and fire management. California prison system’s forestry program has served as a savings to the state for about a decade because it is so much less expensive than hiring more firefighters at a fair wage. California’s Attorney General (then led by Kamala Harris) argued against reducing the number of state prisoners in 2014 since it would “severely affect fire camp participation” during a drought and difficult fire season.

Whether their experiences at conservation camps were positive or not, most of the women’s accounts illustrate that U.S. prisons were not built to provide justice or protection to inmates. Even the women who love the program so much that they want to become firefighters when they get out of prison will likely be barred from many of those jobs because of their felony convictions-or will have to go through a lot of hoops to apply. The woman was named Alisha, and she told Lowe she had already started taking classes to get a job on a diesel engine after she graduated. Alisha, when Lowe told her about a new firefighting law that was available in 2020, said, “Oh my God, that’s amazing. I didn’t know that.”. After an attempted robbery, she was given a life sentence because it was her third offense.

This book was written in 2016 by Lowe, who is an expert at laying out the injustices affecting these women. The book tells the stories of a handful of women from childhood to arrest to conservation camp. A great deal of space is devoted to this level of personal narrative. Several recent press reports have covered California’s women prison firefighters extensively, treating the program largely as a novelty or in an abstract, statistical manner. As a result of the work by women inmates and Jones, the first of their number to die on the job, Breathing Fire brings nuance to the accounts of the women inmates who contribute to the fight against wildfires. While it never forgets its central point: they shouldn’t have been asked to do this at all.

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