By Elena Mateus with Doug Levy
Women battle to continue fighting fires after their releases
Many people are surprised to learn that nearly 10 percent of the incarcerated firefighters serving at California’s 44 “fire camps” are women. Just like men, the women firefighters get the same training as Cal Fire’s other seasonal firefighters- one week in the classroom, another week in the field, and additional training on an ongoing basis. And, just like the incarcerated men who become firefighters, they can’t get jobs as firefighters once they return to their communities.
“There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it. It’s exhausting, but you just keep on going because there is a job to do,” said one of the women firefighters. ‘I have a whole new appreciation for the tools and the work that Firefighters do,” she told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
For Amita Mota, the reality of regulations that prevent many formerly incarcerated individuals from getting professional firefighter jobs hit hard. After rising to the rank of engineer, the top fire service rank in her unit, Mota returned to her community several years ago. There, she found only closed doors.
The state legislature recently considered legislation that would open opportunities for rehabilitated women and men to become firefighters. Cal Fire has also started a program for formerly incarcerated firefighters to join its professional ranks, but most municipal firefighter jobs are closed to anyone with a felony record — no matter what their training and performance as inmate-firefighters demonstrates.
The obstacle is that most cities require full-time firefighters to be cross-trained as both firefighters and emergency medical technicians, and individuals with felony records are barred from getting licensed as EMTs in many California counties.
“It never matched up for me, because we were able to do this from prison but not from the street,” said Mota in an interview with Wall City. “We were a fierce crew. We responded to structure fires, vehicle accidents, performed CPR, everything.”
The same is true throughout the United States, even though many communities
struggle to recruit and retain firefighters. This is in part why communities like the Central California city Madera rely on inmate fire crews as part of mutual aid pacts. Inmate crews also provide a significant amount of Cal Fire’s seasonal staffing.
In California, there are about 4,000 inmate firefighters, forming around 220 fire crews at 44 conservation camps in 27 counties. They are operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) along with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The camps are minimum security facilities, most of them located in rural areas where woodland fires are most likely. Three of the camps—Malibu, Puerta La Cruz and Rainbow—are for women.
The inmate firefighters are trained to the same standards as many urban fire- fighters. In fact, Mota’s five-woman crew handled all kinds of emergency calls, including many in Madera.
“We would respond to calls in the community. People knew if they saw a fire truck with all women, it was prob- ably us ‘fire girls,’” said Mota. “It felt good. I was doing good and helping the community, and everyone we worked with inside and outside of the prison recognized that.”
But not when it comes to hiring these people when they are released. Criminal justice reform advocates also raise questions about whether inmate fire- fighters are compensated appropriately or whether the CDCR firefighting pro- gram is another form of forced labor. In a recent New York Times article, Angela Hanks, director of the Center for Post- secondary and Economic Success at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, said that inmate firefighters should be paid “a fair wage,” especially because it is such a dangerous job. At least six inmates have died while fire- fighting since 1983.
Shawna Lynn Jones, 22, a Los Angeles County Jail inmate firefighter died in 2016 while on duty. Jones’ name was added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial on the National Fire Academy grounds in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
“Shawna had a passion for sawyer work on the fire line and wanted to pur- sue this job in the fire service,” said the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation website. “Shawna gave her life so that others may live.”
Two other California inmate firefighters lost their lives in 2017. Despite the risks and career limits, Mota and other women say the experience is rewarding.
“I came into prison knowing I would be here for years, and this was something to work towards.” She was accepted into prison firefighting in 2012 after she served enough time on her 10-year sentence to qualify for minimum security.
Inmate firefighters are paid an aver- age of $2 per day, plus an additional $1
per hour that they are working on an active fire. Most inmate firefighters earn two additional days off their sentence for each day they serve as a firefighter, according to the CDCR.
Mota says the pay amounted to about 53 cents an hour, or weekly paychecks around $60. While this may seem better than nothing to some people, Mota explained that the pay was at times not enough.
“We had to buy deodorant, tampons, shampoo, and other basic things you need to live.” In addition, CDCR withholds 50 percent of an inmate’s pay if an inmate owes court-imposed restitution. “When you become incarcerated, it puts a financial burden on you and your family with tons of fees to pay back,” Mota said.
According to Mota, everyone around her supported her, and those who “intimately knew the firehouse did not agree with the amount they were paid.”
However, she did not let the pay — or status of being incarcerated — stop her. Affirmation by prison staff and others helped motivate her and her crew.
“They knew we were hard workers, we had integrity. We gave it our all. We had the respect of the correctional officers and fire captains and chiefs.”
Building up that confidence took time and a lot of work.
“Those calls were very intense,” she said, noting that her crew’s first car crash had three people who had to be extricated — and all three died.
“We could train all day long, but you’re never really prepared for what it is like to arrive at a scene like that. What you walk away with is something you won’t find in a book or in training,” she said.
Mota is not alone with frustration over the restrictions that prevent her and other formerly incarcerated individuals from getting jobs in California cities. She sees it as a contradiction that prevents people like her serve their communities constructively.
“They used to tell me all the time that if it was their daughter or their family in trouble, that they would want me on scene,” she said.