Here’s an odd sort of Mother’s Day salute, one which needs to be given to a group of mothers unknown to most of us, but hopefully not forgotten by their children, or by California taxpayers.
This salute goes out to incarcerated mothers, all serving short terms, who are doing everything within their very limited powers to make sure their kids remember them by spending their time working on fire lines and other state-funded projects. These women got themselves into firefighter training with one goal in mind: Getting far away from barbed wire and gun-toting prison guards. It’s a high honor to be accepted and to work alongside those brave firefighters we see on the evening news hosing down hotspots and clearing away dangerously dry brush.
No question, this is highly perilous work, performed by courageous people. And, just as most people do not know who they are, most folks probably also have little idea that these women are frequently called upon to put their lives on the line when fires break out around the state — and for pennies a day.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which manages 39 adult and juvenile camps with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and five adult camps with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, nearly 4,000 men, women and child offenders participate in the Conservation Camp Program, which is comprised of approximately 200 fire crews.
Rarely do we see these inmates, who are paid between $1.50 and $3.90 a day on a fire scene, in the news. They also work on other emergencies, like floods and earthquakes. Fire crews also staff conservation projects on public lands and provide labor on local community service projects, saving the state millions of tax dollars.
In an average year, according to cdcr.ca.gov/Conservation_Camps/, Conservation Camp Program inmates provide approximately three million “person hours” in firefighting and other emergencies in an average year, and seven million person hours in community service projects, saving taxpayers an annual average of more than $80 million. These other projects include clearing fire breaks, restoring historical structures, park maintenance, sand bagging, flood protection and clearing fallen trees and debris.
“While no official calculation has been factored for these projects, the deferred cost savings to state agencies, counties, cities and schools for nonemergency projects is significant in wage savings — in the millions — alone (5.2 million hours of work),” the site states.
But you won’t see these people interviewed by reporters or even photographed while on the job. And inmate moms — far fewer in number but no less valuable than the low-security light-time offending males — most certainly do not make the evening news.
Unfortunately, the quest to raise the minimum wage for low-paid workers hasn’t yet reached our slave labor prison system. But at least it’s better than the pennies inmate moms would be making were they employed in the prison sewing factory.
Why would these women undergo two weeks of intense physical training, spend two more weeks learning about fire suppression techniques, then risk their lives fighting fires and performing other dangerous tasks? It’s simple. First, it’s interesting, challenging and rewarding work. But they also do it to get away from the hellish setting of a regular state prison, which is sometimes more upsetting for family members than it is for inmates.
“Me and my sister visited Mom in prison and it wasn’t a good experience, but we always went, anyway,” one young adult told me of prison visits.
“My brother brought my little boy, who was 3, but he kept crying because he wanted to touch me and he could only put his hand on the window when I would put mine there,” an incarcerated mom said when asked why she doesn’t see her child anymore.
In the words of one mother who was accepted into the firefighting program, the opportunity to leave the prison for a better living environment at the camp and make a little bit of money doing it was to walk on the “good side of life.”
Will moms at fire camp get to spend Mother’s Day with their children? Some women certainly hope that is the case. But, as so often happens in prison, things don’t always work out as they are hoped for.
If not, inmate moms will just have to be sure to pack lots of pictures of their kids to look at on that day and during those times they’re finished saving our hillsides, property and lives.