It’s about 11 a.m. one recent sweltering Monday morning when pint-sized Sakina Jami takes a high-powered weed whacker to some dry brush surrounding a house in the Malibu hills. Jami moves with precision as she mows down the brown foliage deemed a fire hazard.
Scattered around her, amid a cacophony of whirring machinery and shouts of instruction, 11 other women move through the underbrush like firefighters — although their orange pants and long-sleeve shirts clearly read “CDCR Prisoner.”
These inmates make up just one of the fire crews of Malibu Conservation Camp #13, an outpost of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), where female prisoners serve their time assisting in rescue operations, performing community service projects and fighting wildfires.
“I’ve gone on quite a few fires now,” says Jami, who’s only been at camp a month. “It’s exciting, but you get nervous and you get anxious at the same time. ... It’s a lot.”
Nestled in picturesque rolling hills above the ocean, the Malibu camp is the only all-female fire camp in L.A. County, and one of 43 fire camps in the California prison system. This particular site, which can hold up to 100 inmates at one time, looks more like a summer camp than an institution and is just a few minutes' drive from sprawling, luxury homes and picturesque wineries.
There’s no electrified fence or guard tower in sight, and dorm-style barracks replace individual cells. Inmates spend most of their day outside instead of under the stale fluorescence of a traditional facility. The prisoners here receive time off of their sentence for signing up to serve.
“It beats prison,” says 24-year-old inmate Halleigh Carrigan. “It’s not behind bars, you get to fight fires, be out in the community.”
During the dry season, which seems to stretch longer each year, the women of Camp 13 are dispatched to blazes up to five times a week, says L.A. County Fire Department Capt. Damian Ybarra. The inmates are “invaluable” when it comes to fighting fires, he says, and they can spend up to two weeks at a time away from camp on location. Last month alone, the inmates were sent to the 760-acre Placerita Fire in Santa Clarita and the 800-acre Lake Fire in Castaic, among others.
Carrigan vividly remembers her first time on the frontlines.
“I pretty much panicked on the inside,” she says, “because you’re surrounded by flames and all this smoke, and you can’t breathe and you got snot and your eyes are watering. You can’t see.”
Depending on their role on the crew, the inmates get paid anywhere from $1.45 to $3.90 per day and receive an additional $1 per hour when dispatched to fires. Their day-to-day duties at camp may include clearing brush so that first responders can rescue wayward horses, working on trails such as the 67-mile Backbone Trail that stretches from Point Mugu to Will Rogers State Park, and helping to maintain national parks.
There are approximately 500 inmate firefighters in L.A. County, Ybarra says, sourced from five adult fire camps and one juvenile location. The L.A. County Fire Department has approximately 3,000 sworn firefighters, which means inmates comprise a not insignificant 14 percent of the total workforce. Statewide, inmate firefighters make up about 40 percent of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) workforce, says CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa.
In fact, California is so reliant on inmate firefighters that the state has taken great strides to keep them. In 2014, when California was under a federal order to reduce overpopulation in the prisons, state attorneys argued against offering “2-for-1” credits (two days off a sentence for every one day served) for minimum-custody inmates because it would “severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”
Sessa points out that there are plenty of incentives to join the program and that the camps haven’t seen big dips in numbers. However, because of initiatives like AB 109, which sent certain low-level offenders to county jails instead of state prison, and Proposition 47, which reduced certain property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, the fire camp’s pool of eligible inmates has shrunk, which means the prison needs to work harder on recruitment, according to Sessa.
In fact, state prisons now are tapping into county jails — including L.A.’s — to recruit eligible inmates who want to serve out their sentence on the fire lines.
To get transferred to the Malibu camp, inmates typically are required to have three years or less left on their sentence (less time means less of a flight risk), have committed a low-level, nonviolent offense, and undergo rigorous training. Women convicted of arson are barred for obvious reasons; common offenses for inmates at the camp include theft, embezzlement and drug charges.
Because there are few locked doors and not much in the way of containment at the fire camp, the inmates are subject to a headcount every two hours. As part of their grueling daily hike, they shout out their name and bunk or crew number as they check in at the halfway and end points.
“There’s no way we can keep them from walking [away] or escaping,” says Lt. John Scott, who’s been stationed at the women’s fire camp for about four years.
Once a week, the women inmates are required to carry the 40-plus-pound pack they wear when fighting an actual fire. The physical demands of the camp are a struggle. While sitting under a rare spot of shade while gearing up to receive the day’s work assignment, one inmate tears up and admits she’s “just not feeling it” today.
“We all go through it every day. Like dang, I just want to quit. I just want to quit,” says another inmate, Amanda Owens, 32. “We end up not quitting, because the alternative is going back to CIW [California Institution for Women] — and we don’t want that.”
Many of the women say it’s the camaraderie that keeps them afloat, and the bonds between them are apparent through small gestures of sisterhood that include braiding one another’s hair, rubbing each other’s backs and cheering each other on when the daily hike becomes too much to bear: “I’m so proud of you!” one inmate shouts to another.
For some, the camp makes them feel useful. Melissa Logan, 28, says battling blazes empowers her, and she is gratified when residents hold up signs thanking the firefighters for their work.
“You’re preserving life,” Logan says. “You’re preserving people’s homes and what they worked for.”
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Although most injuries suffered on the fire lines are minimal (sprained ankles and poison oak), four inmates have died in the program’s decades-long history, Sessa stated in an email. As recently as May of this year, a male inmate in Humboldt County was killed when a large tree uprooted and fell on him, and last year an inmate firefighter from the Malibu women’s camp died after being struck by a falling boulder while working fire lines near Mulholland Drive.
These risks are a taste of reality for those inmates who plan to apply for employment as a firefighter post-release. Although the L.A. County Fire Department won’t hire convicted felons (even though it uses inmate firefighters), Cal Fire will, and Halleigh Carrigan plans to apply there when she’s released in a little less than two months. So does Latoya Najar, who’s hoping to turn prison into a job opportunity — one that seems to be in her blood.
“I come from a family of firefighters," Najar says. "My grandfather’s the fire chief in Kern County. It’s something I’ll look into, because I have a good reference, along with this.”