Women serving time in California prisons are routinely deployed to fight the state’s wildfires, said Jaime Lowe. For less than $2 an hour, they do strenuous and dangerous work with relatively little training.
Inmates who fight fires
SHAWNA LYNN JONES climbed from the back of a red truck with “LA County Fire” printed on its side. Ten more women piled out after her, on the border of Agoura Hills and Malibu, in Southern California. They could see flames in the vicinity of Mulholland Highway, from a fire that had been burning for about an hour. Jones and her crew wore helmets and yellow Nomex fireretardant suits; yellow handkerchiefs covered their mouths and necks. Each carried 50 pounds of equipment in her backpack. As the “second saw,” Jones was one of two women who carried a chainsaw. She was also one of California’s 250 or so female-inmate firefighters.
Jones worked side by side with Jessica Ornelas, the “second bucker,” who collected whatever wood Jones cut down. Together they were responsible for “setting the line,” which meant clearing potential fuel from a 6-foot-wide stretch of ground between whatever was burning and the land they were trying to protect. If they did their job right, a fire might be contained. But any number of things could quickly go wrong— a slight wind shift, the fall of a burning tree—and the fire would jump the break.
It was just after 3 a.m. on Feb. 25, 2016, when Malibu 13-3, the 12-woman crew Jones belonged to, arrived at the Mulholland fire, ahead of any aerial support or local fire trucks. The inmates— including men, roughly 4,000 prisoners fight wildfires alongside civilian firefighters throughout California—immediately went to work. They operated in hookline formation, moving in order of rank, which was determined by task and ability. The first saw, or hook, leads; second saw is next. Mulholland was Jones’ first fire as second saw; she’d been promoted the previous week. It took only four months for captains to notice her after she began training, and she quickly rose from the back of the hookline, where all inmates start, to the front.
This part of Southern California is full of ravines and dry brush. Season after season, its protected lands are prone to landslides, flash floods, and wildfires. The women scrambled over a slope that was full of loose soil and rocks, which made digging the containment line—a trench of sorts—even more challenging. “It was very steep,” Tyquesha Brown, a crew member, told me. “The fire was jumping.”
With every step they took forward, it felt as if they were slipping at least one step back. But by 7:30 a.m., a little more than a third of the fire was considered contained. Malibu 13-3 had done its job: The fire didn’t jump the line; it didn’t threaten homes, ranches, or coastal properties.
By 10 the next morning, Jones was dead. She was 22. Her three-year sentence had less than two months to go.
CALIFORNIA’S INMATE FIREFIGHTERS choose to take part in the dangerous work they do. They have to pass a fitness test before they can qualify for fire camps. But once they are accepted, the training they receive, which often lasts as little as three weeks, is significantly less than the three-year apprenticeship that full-time civilian firefighters get. “Any fire you go on statewide, whether it be small or large, the inmate hand crews make up anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total fire personnel,” says Lt. Keith Radey, the commander in charge of a camp where women train.
When they work, California’s inmates typically earn between 8 and 95 cents an hour. They make office furniture for state employees, license plates, and prison uniforms. But wages in the forestry program, while still wildly low by outside standards, are significantly better than the rest. At Malibu 13, one of three conservation camps that house women, inmate firefighters can make a maximum of $2.56 a day in camp and $1 an hour when they’re fighting fires.
Those higher wages recognize the real dangers that inmate firefighters face. In May, one man was crushed by a falling tree in Humboldt County; in July, another firefighter died after accidentally cutting his leg and femoral artery on a chainsaw. But, after visiting three camps over a year and a half, I could see why inmates would accept the risks. Compared with life among the general prison population, the conservation camps are bastions of civility. They are less violent. They smell of eucalyptus, the ocean, fresh blooms. They have woodworking areas, softball fields, and libraries full of donated mysteries and romance novels.
Still, when they’re at work, the inmates look like chain gangs without the chains, especially in Malibu, where the average household income is $238,000. “The pay is ridiculous,” La’Sonya Edwards, 35, told me. “There are some days we are worn down to the core,” she said. Edwards makes about $500 a year in camp, plus whatever she earns while on the fire line, which might add up to a few hundred dollars in a month; the pay for a full-time civilian firefighter starts at about $40,000.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says that the firefighter program, known as the Conservation Camp Program, is meant to serve as rehabilitation for the inmates. Yet Los Angeles County Fire won’t hire felons, and CDCR doesn’t offer any formal help to inmates who want firefighting jobs when they’re released.
The Conservation Camp Program saves California taxpayers approximately $100 million a year. Several states—including Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, and Georgia— employ prisoners to fight fires, but none of them relies as heavily on its inmate population as California does. In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown told a local CBS affiliate, “It’s very important when we can quantify that manpower, utilize it.”
‘I LOST COUNT,” Marquet Jones, 27, a firefighter arrested for first-degree burglary, told me when I asked her how many fires she had been on over the past year. “I don’t know how many fires there were last season, but all through last season.”
She recalled her first fire last year, going into Napa Valley as residents were evacuating. The town was burned over. She wondered what she had gotten herself into. Despite her fear, she cut the containment line for 10 hours, almost until dawn. The heavy labor and the danger create a bond among the crew members. Of the 30 or so women I met, most were serving prison terms because of drug- or alcohol-related crimes, nonviolent convictions that the state classifies as low-level. Many said the real education they were getting had to do with making and maintaining relationships. “It helps you to work as a sister crew,” Marquet said. “You learn how to work with them, you know—’cause, really all you have is each other.”
Some inmates say they would work the fire line for free—for the experience, the training, the gratification of doing something useful. “It feels good,” Marquet said, “when you see kids with signs saying, ‘Thank you for saving my house, thank you for saving my dog.’ It feels good that you saved somebody’s home, you know? Some people, they look down on us because we’re inmates.”
SHAWNA LYNN JONES didn’t grow up with dreams of being a firefighter. She wanted to be a police officer. The first photo her mom, Diana Baez, showed me was of a cocky young girl of around 5 or 6 dressed up for career day. Jones is wearing navy blue head to toe and aviator shades. “She always wanted to be a K-9 handler, and here she was dressed like one,” Baez said. We were sitting in a dark, woodpaneled bar—the Trap, a dusty oasis on the fringes of Lancaster, a town already on the fringes of Southern California. Before Jones was incarcerated, this was her home. Her mom managed the bar.
Jones was smart, but as a teenager she couldn’t sit still in class. Eventually, she dropped out of high school. She had a string of boyfriends, most of them bad, and in May 2014 she was caught sitting in a car next to one of them and a large quantity of crystal methamphetamine. He had a lengthy record and didn’t want to be locked up for life. He told Jones he would bail her out if she took responsibility for the drugs. Jones was convicted of possession with attempt to distribute methamphetamine, and of marijuana possession. The boyfriend paid the $30,000 bail, and Jones was sentenced to three years’ probation.
Within a year, Jones was back in trouble. She had violated parole at least three times—stealing groceries, selling marijuana, missing court dates—before a warrant was issued for her arrest. Jones decided to turn herself in. The Trap hosted a party. “We basically ordered 1 million tacos so that she would remember what real food tastes like,” said Rosa Garcia, Jones’ friend. By the next day she was ready. Jones hugged her mom, and skated off on her longboard toward the Lancaster courthouse. Jones was sentenced to three years. She heard about the forestry program and was transferred to Malibu.
By November 2015, Jones was calling her mom weekly to tell her about the training, the exhaustion after sandbagging a hillside, and the optional weekend hikes through the canyons of Malibu. She had found something she liked in the work. Her enthusiasm was so great it convinced her mother that Jones’ luck was changing.
On the morning of the Mulholland fire, Feb. 25, an unknown number flashed on Baez’s cellphone. “There’s been an acci dent,” a man told her when she answered. Baez, immediately hysterical, asked, “Where is my daughter?” He said, “I can’t tell you because she’s an inmate.” An hour later, when the Lancaster sheriff’s office called with instructions, Baez scrawled as much information as she could on her bedroom mirror using eyeliner. When she got to the UCLA hospital, she found her daughter lying unconscious.
“The first thing I did when I opened that curtain and I saw her—I grabbed her—right there, I grabbed her, and I said, ‘You promised me,’” Baez told me. “She just called me two days before, and she said, ‘Momma, I’m coming home in six weeks.’” Baez hardly recognized her daughter. Her face was swollen; her eyes were taped shut; her head had been shaved because the doctors were trying to drain a blood clot.
Captains and representatives from CDCR tried to explain what happened. But Baez could only cry. She never left Jones. Later, she found out from the intake administrator what had happened on the ravine in Malibu.
The earth above Jones began giving way. The first chainsaw shouted, “Rock.” But Jones couldn’t hear over the noise of her machine. The large stone fell 100 feet and struck her head. She was knocked out. A fire captain strapped her into a stretcher, and a helicopter retrieved the limp body.
AT A GRADUATION last year of inmate firefighters at the California Institution for Women, near Chino, where all female inmate firefighters are trained, the mood was celebratory, almost exultant. One speaker brought up Jones and asked, to great applause, that her life and her death not go in vain. He said, “She gave her life for this program, and L.A. County made sure she did not leave without full dress.”
Jones’ body was driven from the coroner’s department to Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary, located between Lancaster and Los Angeles. A fire company crew was on every overpass, standing on their trucks, saluting in full uniform. Outside her funeral, rows of sheriffs and deputies stood at attention, right hands at their brows. Two fire trucks were parked at the entrance with their ladders raised, crossed in tribute to her. Shawna Lynn Jones lived as an inmate and died an honored firefighter. Baez received a customary American flag, folded into a tight triangle. Someone told her, she says, that in Shawna’s four months as a firefighter, she made about $1,000.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Reprinted with permission. ■