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Prison Program Puts Female Inmates on the Fire Lines

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Some of the female inmates at Camp 13. | Photo: Lata Pandya
Some of the female inmates at Camp 13. | Photo: Lata Pandya
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This story was published in tandem with a segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

Malibu is known for palatial homes, celebrity sightings, and gorgeous ocean views, but drive away from the coast and up into the Santa Monica Mountains and you'll find that it is home to something else: a sense of redemption.

Redemption is searched for and found by many at Camp 13, one of three female conservation camps in California. Throughout the state, the adult conservation camps are run by CalFIRE and California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Locally, the state program partners with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The program at Camp 13 trains female inmates to work dangerous brush fires, primarily in the county. Last month, the women helped fight the fires that engulfed portions of San Diego.

Created in 1946, the fire camp program has been an integral program within the state corrections department. The inmate fire program approximately saves the state $100 million a year in fire suppression costs.

When called out to fires, the women clear brush and create fire lines, working to tame wildfires just like many of their male counterparts. Yet, with far fewer women out on the front lines, there is a sense that they have to be just as good as the men, if not better.

"I've even heard of women outdoing male crews on the [fire] line. Not just in the speed but in the quality of the product, the line they cut." said Lt. John Scott, Camp Commander.

Inmates waiting to cross the line.
Inmates waiting to cross the line.

On most days, the work day starts when they "cross the line," a term unique to Camp 13 where inmates walk across a painted red line on the ground to their fire buses. Once crossed, it is all business. From morning training drills to being ready to go on a call at a moment's notice -- these women act and are treated as professionals.

To be part of the program, inmates must be eligible for minimum custody and be fit for vigorous physical activity. Also, unlike many high security prison institutions, there are no looming large cement walls or barbed wire. The 80 inmates are constantly aware of the responsibility that comes with privilege of being a part of the camp program.

Tracey Thompson, 42, has been to the camp for two years and is close to finishing her sentence. She wanted to do something positive while serving her time in prison.

"Well, my first day here was quite an experience. Just putting on the backpack and hiking. And we hiked one of our serious hikes," recalls Thompson of hiking one of the camp's most difficult route called Agony, a 2.6-mile leg burner. "Oh my goodness, you know this going to be hard. This is going to be hard."

Inmates hiking a trail called Backbone.
Inmates hiking a trail called Backbone.

The hikes and the training pale in comparison to the chaos of fighting an actual brush fire.

"My first time here was really scary," recalls Thompson of her very first brush fire call. "You've got aircraft above your head dropping water and you got men bringing fire hoses up the fire line and you got so much going on it gets really scary. You got real high flames, smoke in your eyes."

After working several fires, Thompson is now leader of a 14-woman crew and will be leaving with more skills than she came in with. "Being in charge of 14 girls is one [responsibility], for sure, I've never had to do. And just having a lot more confidence, I have a lot more confidence than what I came in with."

She isn't completely sure what she wants to do when she is out of prison, but is looking at joining the forest service an option.

Although few go on to be firefighters, the program helps many make a swift and easier transition back into society. Recidivism rates are not tracked but officials agree that there is a low recidivism rate for women who are part of the program. In general, females in California prisons have recidivism rate below 50 percent, which trends lower than male inmates, according to a 2013 CDCR report.

Job training during incarceration has repeatedly shown to help decrease recidivism rates. The California Prison Industry Authority, an independently run state-operated agency, states that participants have on average a 26 to 38 percent lower return to prison than those released from the CDCR general population.

Kellie Cullen, 27, has spent four years of her six and half year sentence at Camp 13. She was called out to work the Rim Fire that charred expanses of the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite National Park. She, like Thompson, is one of the crew leaders.

"People want to see you fail, not succeed," says Cullen about being in an institutional setting before coming to Camp 13. She says at camp there are more people she can go to for help and more people who would be willing to help her out.

Inmate using chainsaw during brush clearing exercise.
Inmate using chainsaw during brush clearing exercise.
Women walking through brush, leaving a cleared path.
Women walking through brush, leaving a cleared path.

"They learn a lot about themselves, which allows them to take those skills further on the outside. This is the first time they are part of a team," says Fire Crew Supervisor Glen Ewert. Ewert has worked with L.A. County Fire for ten years and has been with the camp for two.

Cullen doesn't want to go into firefighting when she leaves prison. She would instead want be a counselor encouraging others to find the confidence Camp 13 helped her find. "I feel like if I can do this, I can do absolutely anything."

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