Joshua Grant Prisoners' Rights

Invisible Warriors: California’s Incarcerated Female Firefighters

Despite minimal pay, rigorous training, and insufficient care for grueling injuries, incarcerated firefighters risk their lives to combat deadly fires during California's wildfire season.
In recent years, California’s wildfire season has become one of the greatest challenges facing the state’s population. Nearly one-third of the people risking their lives to fight these deadly fires are incarcerated, many of them women, including Amita Mota (center), shown here in July, 2013.

By Joshua Grant / San Quentin News

Risking their lives for minimal pay, incarcerated female firefighters in California work to save residential neighborhoods and national parks. 

Incarcerated women and men currently account for up to 30% of California’s wildland firefighting crews, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Aug. 1. 

“Arguably, inmate crews are working the hardest, most dangerous job in California right now,” wrote Jamie Lowe, author of Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires

“They are a literal army, fighting to save the state from a climate catastrophe.” 

Incarcerated firefighters first hit Lowe’s radar after she read an article about Shawna Lynn Jones — who died battling a 10-acre flare up in 2016. 

Lowe told The Times that Jones’ story captured her attention for two reasons: First, Jones was part of a small California percentage of female firefighters. More significantly, Jones fought fires as a prisoner. 

Lowe would spend the next five years documenting the lives of the women of the Conservation Camp program and writing Breathing Fire. The July 27 Times story described it as “gritty outdoor journalism.” 

“Our carceral state is so broken that ‘choosing’ to risk one’s life is often described as a privilege, because it is — it’s paradise compared to county jails or state prisons,” wrote Lowe. 

While hiking through the Mesa Peak Motorway, Matt Jaffe of the Chronicle came across the Malibu Conservation Camp #13, on which Lowe’s story is based. 

“I rounded a bend along the crest and came upon a fire crew,” said Jaffe. “…Someone shouted ‘Hiker!’ and I noticed that the orange-clad team was made up entirely of women. 

“Usually when you meet firefighters working in the mountains, there are friendly greetings and maybe a bit of banter,” he continued. “But the members of this crew all avoided eye contact.” 

But then Jaffe saw the “CDCR PRISONER” on their clothes and figured out why. 

California has depended on prison labor for years. 

“They may not realize it, but when Californians place those ‘Thank You Firefighters!’ signs on overpasses and in front yards, they’re thanking prisoners,” said Jaffe. 

He further noted how — when one drives Highway One along the coastal forest areas and also many roads into the Sierra and Yosemite National Forest — these scenic opportunities were made by an incarcerated workforce. 

Besides offering prisoners a bit more comfort than the normal penitentiary existence, Lowe said fire camps allow them to see their families in “a nice place — a respectable place.” 

Lowe’s book details the tough physical training and rigorous work firefighting entails. Incarcerated fire crews face grueling injuries and insufficient care, often sustaining lifelong injuries. 

“Your feet are hot and tired and have a pulse of their own,” said an incarcerated firefighter named Marquet. “You feel like you can’t breathe, but you’re breathing. Your face feels like it’s about to melt off, but it’s there.” 

Lowe addressed the huge catch to all of the hard work incarcerated firefighters go through. When they finally get released, they often can’t put their skills to use because of a criminal record. 

California Assembly Bill 2147, signed last September, may help by allowing for expungement of criminal records. 

Former firefighters can apply for expungements, but district attorneys can challenge them and judges can deny them. 

“For many of these women, firefighting, despite its dangers and physical demands, is a source of pride and hope,” said Jaffe. 


  1. aren’t prison firefighters barred from actually get a job as an actual firefighter when they get out of prison?  Don’t think you mentioned this in your post.  Jean PalmerLincoln MA

  2. Most time served should be expunged. But, not in this Digital Gulag, where EVERYTHING we are, do, did, will do, is data captured. We are ghosts of humanity. So, ex-cons? The bottom of the barrel in this society. Felony Friendly places of work for them? Come on. There is zero reason we have allowed the policing state and judicial kings and racist legislators to hold our feet to fire. So, I end up accidently crashing my car into a telephone pole. I am not drunk. Not under the influence. A cop comes, pushes my shoulder, and tries to man handle me. I move quickly, the punk slips, falls, hits his head, breaks a wrist and his uniform rips and his taser cracks.

    Charges, man, charges. And if I do not have the rich white man’s money to make bail and to get a bizarre lawyer to finangle, then I plea, end up a felon, assault, and more — destruction of public property, assault on a peace officer, terroristic threats, premeditated defensive move, and more.

    You think this a thought experiment? Get real. I have been a case manager for many folk under these conditions, and the felony follows them, they pay for the ankle bracelet, the pay for their time in, the court costs, fines, etc. You think they will get a job? Assault?

    It has to be expunged, man.

    Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
    —The 13th Amendment, passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, ratified by the states on December 6, 1865

    Ava DuVernay’s new documentary The 13th is a disturbing, expansive chronicle of national shame, excavating with clinical precision the long history of racial inequality in the United States. It focuses particularly on how the nation has produced the world’s highest rate of incarceration—a shocking opening statistic informs us that America represents five percent of the world’s population, yet is home to nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners—and how a disproportionate majority of those imprisoned are African-American.

    DuVernay’s basic premise is that the 13th Amendment, while guaranteeing emancipation for slaves, subsequently served as a loophole for ensuring that vast swathes of America’s black population would be doomed to a lack of liberty. In well-researched and cogently structured segments illuminated by on-screen statistics, The 13th investigates, among other state-sponsored forms of social malaise, the old Southern practice of convict leasing (the provision of prisoner labor to private parties), the ruthless application of Jim Crow laws, and the deleterious effects of the racially coded “war on drugs.”

    Underscoring DuVernay’s clout, The 13th features a vast range of insightful, high-profile talking heads, including Michelle Alexander—author of The New Jim Crow, about the prison-industrial complex, an evident guiding light for the film—and legendary activist Angela Davis. Political advocate Van Jones is especially engaging; his live-wire observations on historical FBI chicanery, Nixon’s Southern strategy, and the systematic decimation of black leadership, from the assassinations of Fred Hampton and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the current exile of activist Assata Shakur, are at once riveting and infuriating. This patchwork of smart critical voices lends the film an absorbing, immersive quality.

  3. The State of California has a higher GDP than the entire country of Russia. Fact. So I have to ask……why are their prisoners, at prisoner non-existent wages, being pushed to do this? Let me guess. Their lives carry a lower value, therefore more expendable when lost.

    1. My grandniece is trying to become a firefighter, going through the tough training, and sidelined right now by a back condition. She is doing this because it is preferable to the prison life she endured in her previous prison. She has faint hope that her record will be expunged, because her drunk driving conviction happened in a super-conservative county next to Sacramento.

  4. nothing wrong with inmates working for the benefit of society—inmate labour entirely voluntary in 47 US states

    1. Fool’s errand. Inmates working for the benefit of Billionaires, For Profit Prisons, bullshit. 27 cents an hour in New Jersey. Zero in Georgia. Get real, herzen.

      Good one here, Lowkey,

      Joe Biden? Makes Trump look like a minature poodle thug:

      “The entire system works to railroad primarily poor people and disproportionately poor people of color into this system,” he told Lowkey. “Almost no one in the United States gets a jury trial; 94% of the people in the prison system are coerced by prosecutors to accept a plea deal. Public defenders can only spend 10 or 15 minutes with their clients.”

      In “Our Class,” Hedges describes mass incarceration as “the civil rights issue of our age.” “When you incarcerate someone, in essence, the whole family becomes incarcerated,” he said. Some 77 million Americans have a criminal record, while 113 million American adults have an immediate family member who has been to or currently is incarcerated, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

      Once in the system, it is, by design, extremely hard to escape. Incarcerated individuals are forced to work for pennies per hour (some states pay nothing), while all manner of essential items are not provided and cost exorbitant amounts to purchase from the commissary. As a result, inmates are often released owing thousands of dollars.

      Having a criminal record bars citizens from many welfare and public housing benefits, as well as applying for jobs in a myriad of professions. For example, during the summer wildfires last year, California prison firefighters worked alongside professionals, tackling some of the worst blazes in American history. For this, they were paid barely $1 per hour, and are blocked from applying to the fire department once they are released. Thus, paying back these odious debts is even harder than it may appear.

      Hedges singled out President Joe Biden as playing a particularly key role in turning the United States into an incarceration nation. Biden was “instrumental” in pushing the Democrats into seizing back the “law and order” narrative from the Republicans in the 1990s, helping to pass into law rules such as the Three Strikes Law, which has sent many Americans to prison for life for trivial offenses. The number of crimes worthy of the death penalty was also exanded from barely a handful to 51. Until recently, Biden took credit for the infamous 1994 Crime Bill, which was a key piece of legislation in codifying the prison industrial complex.

      Of the 46th president, Hedges, who teaches in a prison in New Jersey, said, “Half of my students (or more) would not be in that classroom but for Joe Biden.”

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