KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Given The Choice Between Prison Life And Fighting Wildfires, These Women Chose Fire

Originally published on July 30, 2021 3:24 pm

As climate change makes fire seasons hotter and longer in the U.S., about 20,000 firefighters are currently working to contain blazes across the country. For decades now, some of California's incarcerated population have been among those doing this lifesaving work, at great risk to their own lives.

One of those people was Shawna Lynn Jones. In 2016, she was working in one of the state's fire camps and fighting the Mulholland Fire in Malibu when a boulder the size of a basketball struck her in the head. She died a day later, becoming the first incarcerated woman in the state to lose her life after battling a wildfire.

Her death became a catalyst for Jaime Lowe's new book, Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Frontlines of California's Wildfires, which chronicles the life stories and challenges of incarcerated women like Jones, who are part of the state's wildfire crews. The book also takes a look at the state's history of mass incarceration, the origins of the fire-camp program and the impact of climate change in the state's wildfires.

Lowe spoke with All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang about the surprisingly positive experiences of some of the women in this program, the pay disparity between the incarcerated and civilian firefighters and the challenges they faced finding firefighting work upon release. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On how Shawna Jones' death inspired her to start reporting

The first thing that captured my attention was that this woman had died and there wasn't much said about her beyond her crime. The second part that really made me curious was that I didn't know anything about the incarcerated firefighter program. It was something that I felt a sort of mix of shame and embarrassment and curiosity [about] because I grew up knowing those mountains, and I grew up knowing those hikes and that area and I had no idea that this program existed.

On how the conditions of fire camps differ from regular prisons

They are as different as you can possibly imagine. I mean, there are no fences, there's no barbed wire, there's very little evidence that it actually is a prison except for maybe a sign that indicates it's a state prison. They are wooded; they're in fire country and so they're kind of nestled into wilderness and they're small.

On the way the state refers to the women as "volunteers" and pays them less than minimum wage for life-threatening work

I think that observationally, you can't necessarily say that you're volunteering for something when it's the lesser of two terribles. You wouldn't volunteer to risk your life unless you were actually trying to avoid these situations in state prisons or in county jails that are so inhumane and so absolutely degrading in so many ways.

The $2.56 [pay] was actually when I started reporting, and they've since raised the daily rate to up to $5. I think the biggest problem is that this is actually one of the highest-paid jobs within prison industries through the state of California, which is shockingly low by comparison to civilian crews, and they're risking their lives in the same way; they're doing a lot of the same stuff that hand crews are doing through the forestry department. So obviously, I think that everyone would want to be paid more.

On how difficult it was for the women to build careers in firefighting after their release

The most surprising element of the reporting was that a lot of the women that I spoke with were very positive about their experiences in terms of what they actually went through, what they learned, the purpose that they felt.

[Whitney] had a couple options when she got out, and none of them quite felt right. She returned to [firefighting] because it was a job that she knew and it was something that felt like the right choice at the time.

[That's] very rare, and I think it's near impossible, actually, to get to that position. Marquet is a great example. She really wanted to be a firefighter, but she also had two minimum wage jobs that she had to go to, to support herself while she was in an associate's program to get certification to become a firefighter. It's just not easy in terms of, financially. She had two kids that she wanted to send to football camp and try and be a mom to. And when you're on parole, it's very hard to reenter into society.

On whether she thinks that using incarcerated individuals to fight fires is a good idea

I think the program has the potential to be a really good idea; I think that having the corrections department involved in it is not a good idea. I think that if there could be a possibility that instead of going to state prison and going to county jails, that you could actually serve time, be paid minimum wage, go to a conservation camp, have an apprenticeship that led to a job — because the state obviously is in desperate need of firefighters; it is on fire — [it could be a good idea]. But there are some basic elements, like being a firefighter who's treated like a prisoner, like not being paid enough, like being put into physically harmful positions without proper health care: These are really problematic parts to the program and they're so problematic that it leads me to believe that it shouldn't exist in its current form.

Editor's note: Lowe refers to the incarcerated women using only their first names — some of which have been changed — to protect their privacy. NPR reached out to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about Lowe's criticisms of its fire camps. It has yet to respond.

Clarification: 7/30/21

A previous version of this story incorrectly suggested incarcerated women make up a third of California wildlife crews. Roughly 30% of the state's on-the-ground wildfire crews are made up of incarcerated people, both men and women.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Right now some 20,000 firefighters in the U.S. are trying to contain what's already been a busy start to the wildfire season. And for decades now, some of California's prison inmates have been among those doing this lifesaving work at great risk to their own lives. A warning now - some of the details you're about to hear may be disturbing.

Shawna Lynn Jones was one of those inmates. In 2016, she was working for a prison fire camp battling a blaze in Malibu when a boulder the size of a basketball tumbled from a mountain and struck her head. She was the first incarcerated woman in California to lose her life after fighting a wildfire. And her death was, in many ways, a catalyst for Jaime Lowe's new book, "Breathing Fire." It chronicles some of the challenges and life stories of some of the incarcerated women who have joined California's wildfire crews. I spoke to Jaime Lowe about her book.

I was wondering; when you first read the news of Shawna Jones' death just one day a few years ago in the LA Times, like, what was it about that story that first captured your attention so much?

JAIME LOWE: The first thing that captured my attention was that this woman had died and there wasn't much said about her beyond her crime. And the second part that really made me curious was that I didn't know anything about the incarcerated firefighter program. And it was something that I felt a sort of mix of shame and kind of embarrassment and curiosity because I grew up knowing those mountains, and I grew up knowing those hikes and that area. And I had no idea that this program existed.

CHANG: And can you just describe for people what these fire camps look like? Like, how different are they from regular prison life?

LOWE: They are as different as you can possibly imagine. I mean, there are no fences. There's no barbed wire. There's, like, very little evidence that it actually is a prison except for maybe a sign that indicates it's a state prison. They are wooded. They're in fire country. And so they are kind of nestled into wilderness. And they're small.

CHANG: The state calls these incarcerated firefighters volunteers. But how much did you find these women whom you talked to agreed with that characterization, that they were genuinely volunteering to do this kind of work?

LOWE: That's a really good question because I think that the most surprising element of the reporting was that a lot of the women that I spoke with were very positive about their experiences in terms of what they actually went through, what they learned, the purpose that they felt. However, I think that, you know, observationally, you can't necessarily say that you're volunteering for something when it's the lesser of two terribles (ph), you know? You wouldn't volunteer to risk your life unless you were actually trying to avoid these situations in state prisons or in county jails that are so inhumane and so degrading in so many ways.

CHANG: And then on top of that, you write about how these firefighters earn $2.65 a day while living in these fire camps and up to $2 an hour while risking their lives fighting these fires. So these women aren't paid hardly anything. How did they feel about the amount of compensation that they received doing this kind of work?

LOWE: The 2.56 was actually when I started reporting, and they've since raised the daily rate to - up to $5. I think that the biggest problem is that this is actually one of the highest-paid jobs within prison industries through the state of California, which is, you know, shockingly low by comparison to civilian crews. And they're risking their lives in the same way. They're doing a lot of the same stuff that hand crews are doing through the forestry department. So obviously, I think that everyone would want to be paid more.

CHANG: You profile several women in this book. And when you think about how this firefighting work helped these women process the struggles that they were dealing with while in prison, are there one or two stories that struck you most?

LOWE: So they all struck me because they were stories that I don't know about and don't experience and don't hear about often enough. And, you know, a couple that really struck me - Sonya's (ph) story, when she talked to me about how she would be kind of reliving the trauma of not being with her kids. And she would be thinking about this while she was out there working the line and having to navigate this really intense emotional stuff while she was being a firefighter and a prisoner.

CHANG: And we should acknowledge that you're using mostly first names for the women in this book to protect their privacy.

LOWE: Right - so mostly first names, and some have been changed. And another story that really struck me was Whitney's (ph) because she, again, was dealing with extreme trauma after having been involved in a drunk driving accident where somebody died. And having the ability to work in some way really helped her. I mean, she said it helped her. And I think she had a couple options when she got out, and none of them quite felt right. And she returned to fire because it was a job that she knew, and it was something that felt like the right choice at the time.

CHANG: But what about other women? How difficult was it for other women to build careers in firefighting after their release? I mean, Whitney's story was rare, right?

LOWE: Very rare. And I think it's near impossible, actually, to get to that position. I think that Marquart (ph) is a great example. She really wanted to be a firefighter, but it's just not easy in terms of financially. She had two kids that she wanted to, you know, send to football camp and try and be a mom to. And when you're on parole, it's very hard to reenter into society.

CHANG: Right. So ultimately, Jaime, where do you land after writing this book on the idea of using incarcerated individuals to fight some of the deadliest fires in our country? Is this fair? Is this a good idea in the end?

LOWE: So I think the program has the potential to be a really good idea. I think that having the corrections department involved in it is not a good idea. There are some basic elements like not being paid enough, like being put into physically harmful positions without proper health care. These are really problematic parts to the program. And they're so problematic that, you know, it leads me to believe that it shouldn't exist in its current form.

CHANG: That is Jaime Lowe. Her new book is called "Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters On The Frontlines Of California's Wildfires." Thank you so much for your reporting.

LOWE: Thank you.

CHANG: And we should note that we reached out to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about those criticisms of its fire camps. We haven't yet heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.