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Doing Time on the Fire Lines : Women Successfully Trade Prison Cells for Hard Labor, Surprising Themselves With New Self-Esteem

May 04, 1986|JILL STEWART | Times Staff Writer

A dusty red fire truck pulled into Encinal Canyon Fire Camp 13, laden with weary firefighters home from a day of clearing brush in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The crew members swatted fine tan dust from their dungarees. Their big black boots thudded heavily as each jumped from the transport to the ground.

Then, peeling away the macho illusion, the firefighters doffed their hard hats and work gloves. Folds of long hair tumbled into view and colorful ovals of pink nail polish caught the bright sunlight.

Big Surprise

The 100 women of Fire Camp 13 are surprising everyone, including themselves.

They are prisoners--convicted felons--sent to camp from the overcrowded California Institution for Women at Frontera, which has been swamped by an unprecedented doubling of its population since 1981.

Isolated in simple barracks on a stretch of road high above Malibu, the women--none of whom are considered hard-core criminals--have traded cramped prison cells for a life of hard labor once reserved for male prisoners.

Paid prison wages of about $2 a day, these former secretaries, housewives and store clerks heave the giant combined axes and grubbing tools known to firefighters as Pulaskis, and wield deafening chain saws that slice through the scrub wood like knives through cake.

"I have 20 years on as a firefighter, and quite frankly I am very impressed," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Bob Martin, the camp boss the women call simply "Cap."

Trained by Martin and his county team of expert firefighting foremen, the women, wearing full gear, are capable of cutting a three-mile fire line in just three days. Many are proud veterans of the 6,500-acre Decker Canyon fire in Malibu last October, in which they and a 1,000 other prisoner and professional firefighters were credited with saving scores of homes.

The women have been whipped into shape like clients at an expensive fat farm.

"I've lost 20 pounds and look at my legs!" said Rita Tatum, 32, pounding her thigh. "They're hard, hard as rock."

Martin said that when the big brush fires hit last fall, "the first reaction of my foremen was, 'OK, where do we hide these women?' . . . We had expected them to do 75% or 80% of what the male prisoners had been doing. But instead, we got 100% and more from the females. We're talking General Patton."

After that, Martin said, "the men wanted the women out front."

The camp, which opened last summer, is jointly funded by the county Forester and Fire Warden and the state Department of Corrections. It is one of only two fire camps for women inmates in California. The other, in San Diego County, opened in 1983. The two camps are believed to be the only ones of their kind in the United States, the result of a court order requiring California prisons to give women inmates the same training opportunities as men.

Welfare Fraud

Convicted of crimes such as drug dealing, welfare fraud and robbery, many of them dislike the rough work and pray for the day they can return to their families. Those who don't like firefighting but make a good effort often get assigned the less rigorous "in-camper" jobs such as auto mechanic and chief of maintenance.

"Nobody's ever going to tell you the truth about this place," said one woman, who asked not to be identified. "The hard work, the exercise, the pain--it's the worst."

But only two women have asked to be returned to prison since the camp opened, and fewer than a dozen have been sent back because they couldn't cut it physically or emotionally. The vast majority say they are grateful to have been selected from the cream of the prison population--hard work or not.

For instance, there's Opie, dubbed so by the captain because she looks more like a fresh-scrubbed character from the "Andy Griffith Show" than a prisoner with a felony rap.

The 22-year-old from Oroville, whose real name is Tonya Mabry, said she is "incredibly thankful" to have been sent to camp, where she put in her final day of time April 18.

At Frontera, where she was first assigned, "we were bunched up together with sick women--people who have done crazy, crazy things," she said. "You've got stabbings in there, women tortured in there, sexually assaulted by other women. We don't have that here, thank God."

And there's Petra Sanchez, who has discovered that she wants more than anything to become a firefighter.

"I love camp," said Sanchez, 39. "I know it's a hard job, a lot of work, and I have a long time to go until 1987. But I like the work. I found out how much I like to help people. . . . I feel like I'm part of something good."

Outward Bound

The camp is part prison, part Outward Bound.

There are no bars, no locks, not even a gate across the main entrance. Seven mandatory head counts and usually one surprise head count each day are the only reminders that the women are not free.

"Everywhere you turn, there's a road you could take out of here. But nobody does," said Estella Hernandez, 34, the camp carpenter who goes by her Indian name of Evening Star.

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