What It's Like to Be a Female Firefighter in California Prison
"I love the cutting, I love the chainsaw, I love being on the mountains. It's one of the places where you feel free. You feel like you're giving back."
All photos by Tobin Yelland
A short, winding drive from the glorious beaches of Malibu, amidst the private vineyards of the Santa Monica Mountains, a group of several dozen women stand in line as a supervisor calls them forward one by one.
Samantha Vasquez, 26, steps forward. She pauses to stamp her heavy black work boot in the dirt, which gives her supervisor just enough time to match her face to the photo ID he holds in his hand.
"Vasquez," she replies. Stamp.
Like the rest of the women in line, Vasquez is an inmate of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) at Malibu Conservation Camp #13. Also like the roughly 75 other women at the camp, Vasquez's hair is pulled back and pinned into place, revealing the tattoo on the left side of her neck memorializing her daughter's father. Her eyebrows and her makeup are immaculate. She had never imagined becoming a firefighter before coming to camp, but now she's found her calling.
"I love it," she declares, adding that she wants to continue the work after she paroles. "I love the cutting, I love the chainsaw, I love being on the mountains. It's one of the places where you feel free. You feel like you're giving back."
The one-by-one identification and boot-stamping are part of the daily ritual known as "crossing over"—that is, crossing over from state prison supervision to that of the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD), which jointly runs the camp with the CDCR. Malibu is one of three conservation camps—more commonly referred to as "fire camps," since the majority of the work inmates do is fighting and helping to prevent wildfires—where female inmates can serve their time in California. Each day an inmate serves in fire camp counts as two days toward the completion of her sentence. In a state with the third-highest number of imprisoned women (Texas and Florida have the most) in a nation that incarcerates more of its citizens than any other on earth, the firefighting female inmates of Malibu enjoy a genuine departure from the typically brutal carceral policies of the " golden gulag."
California's inmate firefighter program was established in 1946, and the first women joined in 1983 (at least one other state, Nevada, has its own female fire camps). Today, approximately 225 of the program's 4,000 participants are women, according to CDCR spokesperson Bill Sessa. They are divided between three camps: Malibu, Puerta La Cruz, and Rainbow.
Getting a spot at fire camp isn't easy. An inmate must have earned "minimum custody" (low-risk) status, have no more than seven years left to serve, and have shown good behavior in prison. "We rely on teamwork on the fire lines, where an inmate's ability to work with other people on the team can be a life or death situation," says Sessa. Inmates must pass rigorous physical fitness tests for admission—fighting wildfires takes substantial strength and endurance, and the ability to go with little or no sleep for up to 24 hours. Fire camp inmates can range in age from late teens to mid-60s. At Malibu, the oldest current inmate is 52.
"Females do a quality job," LACFD Foreman Matt Stiffler tells me. "At times the production level is less, but the quality is significantly better with females, generally speaking." Another LACFD employee made the same observation within earshot of one of the crews, noting that the women are more meticulous, though they move slower. Later, one of the women approached me to let me know that she resented that comment—we move fast, she said.
There are certain refrains that come up again and again around California's prison fire camps. One is that the program is a "win-win-win," which I hear from both LACFD and CDCR personnel at the camps. That sentiment comes up in sociologist Philip Goodman's 2012 scholarly work on the subject, " 'Another Second Chance': Rethinking Rehabilitation through the Lens of California's Fire Camps."
The first win is for the CDCR, which gets positive PR from the program and can offer some corrections officers a relatively sweet gig at camp. Steve Schlund is the most senior officer at Malibu, with 15 years under his belt. Before that, he worked in conventional prison settings with male inmates, where he became accustomed to daily violence and struggled to keep the strain of the prison environment separate from his home life. "You got used to it," he says. "Like, 'Oh, it's just another stabbing or just another fight.' But there were days you'd go home very stressed out—anybody who says there weren't, they'd be lying to you." At Malibu, he tells me, it's more peaceful. The women are better able to get along across racial lines than the male inmates he worked with, and the only thing he has to complain about is that his senior status doesn't offer him scheduling privileges.
The second win is for the inmates. The food is better than in conventional prison. And the wages, though abysmal, are higher than any other prison job in California, according to CDCR's Bill Sessa: Women earn about $2 per day at fire camp and an extra $1 an hour when working on the fire line, and an officer at Malibu told me that CDCR is considering raising that to $3 an hour.
Several of the women tell me they are treated with respect at fire camp, particularly by LACFD staff, in stark contrast to the treatment in the prisons they transferred from (inmates can only be assigned to fire camp from prison, but not directly sentenced there). They get to be outside every day, and when there's a fire in another part of California, they travel. Their families can visit without enduring hours of wait time, invasive searches, and grim, institutional visiting rooms. And they get to feel they are "giving something back"—another common fire camp refrain. And there is no doubt that they are: Fire camp crews are dispatched to every brush fire that LACFD gets sent out to, says Captain Keith Mora. In 2014, that number came to 453 fires. Even when there are no fires to contain, the women perform intense physical labor five days a week on various conservation projects.
Every woman I speak to, both those hand-picked by CDCR and the ones I approached myself, expresses gratitude in the strongest terms for being at fire camp. Indeed, close to half a dozen women say they plan to continue the work when they parole. (One LACFD official tells me that this might be more challenging than inmates expect because many fire-fighting organizations will not hire anyone with a felony conviction. But some inmates and CDCR staff are still in touch with women who have paroled and gone on to do firefighting or conservation work anyway.) The women describe a feeling of being part of something larger than themselves, feeling part of a team, proud of their own competence and endurance, feeling transformed by the military-style structure and discipline at camp.
Each woman I speak to describes having undergone a personal transformation to one degree or another, often in the context of becoming a better mother and a more positive role model for their children. "When I first went to prison, I was a wreck," Samantha Vasquez says. "This program has taught me how to work hard and how to appreciate what I work for." When she paroles, she says her focus will be on her daughter. "I have this little person looking at me. She's going to copy everything I do, not what I say. So if I show her, 'OK, mommy has to go to work now, this is what you do,' she'll know this is what you do, you go to work so you can pay your bills."
Alicia Gilbert, 35, is a petite blond mother of three and bursts with friendly energy. She's been at Malibu for two and a half years, making her one of the camp's longest-term residents, and is a sawyer (or chainsaw operator), the highest-responsibility position on a crew. Her family visits twice a month, making the drive from Santa Barbara County. "My kids think it's pretty cool," she says of the work. "A few times during their visits here, the fire alarm has gone off so I've had to jump in the bus. My littlest one is three, and one time she tried to run onto the bus with us," she laughs. Before admission to fire camp, Gilbert was at the California Institution for Women in Corona, an environment so grim she would not allow her children to visit. "They don't know anything else but this place, which is good."
The third "win" is for the state, and here is where some prison reform and labor advocates believe that things get murky, to put it gently. CDCR estimates that the fire program saves California $80-$100 million yearly by employing inmates to fight fires and do other conservation work. (California Attorney General Kamala Harris recently had to do some damage control after her lawyers argued in court that a federally-ordered prison release order for nonviolent criminals would cut too deeply into the cheap labor pool provided by inmates.)
"It's not just slave labor, it's very dangerous slave labor," argues Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center. For its part, CDCR does not officially track injury rates among fire camp inmates, and a group of LAFCD personnel tell me that the worst injury they know of occurred when a male inmate was struck in the leg with a rolling rock about the size of a bowling ball. They said they had never seen loss of life nor limb.
"This is a prime example of how prison slavery undermines salaries and wages for non-prisoners," Wright argues. "If they weren't having the prisoners do the work for whatever pittance they pay them, they would be paying non-prisoners 15-20 dollars an hour plus benefits." LAFCD Fire Captain Mike Velazquez agrees with the estimate, saying that a typical salary for similar work would be around $40,000 per year.
Asked if he sees any upside to the fire camp program, Wright retorts, "I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who saw anything uplifting in the financial exploitation of people. That's like saying slavery taught African Americans a work ethic."
The women at Malibu are familiar with Wright's argument, but their day-to-day lives unfold on a different plane than abstract ideas of justice, no matter how elementary or irrefutable. Jelena Supica, 26, is tall, remarkably poised, with a military bearing. "It is controversial," she says. "You could look at it that way, as being exploited for labor. But you've got to look at it as the glass half full, because I was a lost little girl before I came here. This program is helping us to become helpful members of society. It's beautiful. If anything, they should open more camps like these." Supica wonders why there is no camp for female juveniles, only males—she sees that as a squandered opportunity.
CDCR typically doesn't track data on recidivism rates by institution or program, because "it's too simplistic a measure," according to Bill Sessa. Only one report in recent years has done so, and it indicates that the recidivism rates of camp parolees, male and female, are among the lowest of any program—52 percent, compared to roughly 63 percent among the general inmate population. Goodman, the sociologist, noted surprise at how "strikingly disinterested" CDCR is in comparing recidivism rates between fire camp and general inmate population parolees. Instead of CDCR's usual focus on recidivism as an indicator of success, Goodman argued, the focus is on something less tangible: "[Inmates, staff, and administrators] view the camp program as an enabler of change for those inclined to engage in self-transformation. The primary focus is therefore on moral, as opposed to actuarial, reform."
This points to the strange central tension of the fire camp project on the whole. For the individual inmate, fire camp is understandably sought after: the respect given, the higher wages earned, the relative autonomy, the better food, the access to visitors. On an anecdotal level, on an individual level, fire camp can be a life-changer. But what does it mean to celebrate any part of a regime as troubled as the California prison system, one that uses the word "rehabilitation" in its name but offers only about 3 percent of inmates the opportunity to take part in fire camp?
For female inmates in particular, there's another troubling layer. During my visit, several inmates and even one LACFD employee at Malibu matter-of-factly refer to women serving time there who are not guilty of a crime. "We're all here for a reason, even if we might not have done the crime," as Jelena Supica puts it. She's talking about women convicted of conspiracy charges on the basis that they lived with a husband or boyfriend involved in drug sales, or were otherwise " caught in the net" of sweeping, draconian drug policy. Whether these women have been granted an opportunity to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and start over, or whether they've become slaves of the state due to a series of unfortunate choices, depends on whom you ask.
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