Repairing the Damage: Female Arizona Inmates Serving as Firefighters
Building and maintaining a sufficient crew is an ongoing challenge for many fire companies, and several of these groups struggle to meet that challenge. It isn’t at all uncommon for fire companies to recruit and retain volunteers by drawing from the communities these organizations serve. However, for many areas and municipalities throughout the country, the need for qualified personnel is a bigger problem than the more traditional recruitment strategies can solve.
Arizona has discovered one innovative solution that has been implemented to great effect. Women inmates from the Perryville prison complex have been responding to wildfires for a number of years now, and the successful program is finally gaining the recognition it deserves.
The question of what we ought to do with the incarcerated segment of our society is a hot political debate that we’ll avoid here. That said, if we claim that the ultimate goal of imprisonment is rehabilitation, then drawing from the prison population for fire suppression is an excellent means to that end. Anyone who has worked with a fire crew, be it an urban or forestry unit, can attest to the sense of accomplishment, responsibility, and camaraderie one experiences after serving for some time.
The inmate firefighting positions are open to non-violent, low-level offenders. The women requesting access to the program undergo clearance checks and evaluations before being permitted to serve. Once they are accepted into the program, the internal reward they enjoy for contributing positively to society and atoning for their crimes is evident both in their performance and in the gratitude they feel. One prisoner, Elizabeth Gama, is quoted as saying: “It’s a way of giving back to the community [and] trying to repair what we’ve done.”
There are numerous benefits for the women serving. These benefits range from practical training, cultivation of work ethic, and the invaluable conditioning of one’s ability to respond effectively to chaos. For these women and for other inmates involved in the program, which was established in the 1980s, participation can be especially rewarding in light of the damage they’ve done to their own lives and future prospects with convictions on their records.
Ellamy Kline, who joined the fire crew eight months ago, has plans to join a professional fire company following her anticipated release in March.
The inmates can work up to 16 hours per day for stretches of days in a row, handling a variety of tasks including anything from general maintenance to the gritty work of suppression. They can earn anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 an hour, a considerably less expensive option for the state than a traditional paid crew (again, political perspectives aside). This also carries the invaluable advantage of reduced recidivism, with serving inmates able to take advantage of more promising opportunities when they are released.
This year, as a new facet to the synergistic endeavor, Arizona has established a fire unit devoted solely to hiring former inmates. This means that for those serving now, there is a socially responsible role readily available for them to step into if they wish to pursue a career in firefighting after their prison term has been served.