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Women Prisoners Fight Fires

La Opinin, News Report, Claudia Nez, Translated by Suzanne Manneh Posted: Nov 19, 2008

Editor's Note: A group of female inmates is helping fight the fires in Southern California for $1 a day and a chance at a reduced sentence. Claudia Nez reports for La Opinin in Los Angeles.

With every step she takes toward the fire, Ana Arredondo thinks of her children. She knows that every time she faces the flames, there is the possibility that she will see them soon.

Ana is one of more than 1,500 California inmates that has been fighting the Southern California fires for the past 72 hours.

Her job is to lead the way for firefighters, a task that also requires loading up to 60 pounds on her shoulders. She receives a dollar a day for her work, and although it isnt much, she will be rewarded with the promise of a reduced sentence.

Her muscles are trembling, she hasnt slept for more than 24 hours and she smells like ashes, but Ana is happy. Thanks to her work, her sentence has been reduced and she now has the opportunity to start a career as a fire investigator, one of her biggest dreams.

"I never thought that by doing something bad I would end up learning something good. My children are proud of me and this has filled my life," she says.

Arredondo is part of a team of female inmates who are fighting fires with Camp Rainbow, one of three centers in the state that has a female crew of firefighters. "They do the same work as men. There are no special considerations for being women," said Lt. Raymond Villa, who is in charge of rescue crews working with 606 inmates.

Together with these women, many of whom are undocumented and will face deportation orders, there are another thousand male prisoners helping to fight fires. "They are trained like any other firefighter, but sadly do not receive the same recognition, even though they are risking their lives even more because their only defense is the knowledge they carry in their heads," explained Norm Taylor, director of the firefighter camp for the women's prison in Corona.

The work of these teams has saved the state more than $70 million. "They are trained for everything. From working in a kitchen to serving an entire rescue team and fighting fires to performing clerical work, and when they finish fighting these flames, they will help rehabilitate the areas and rebuild communities," Taylor said.

To be part of this team, inmates dont need to be legal residents. They may have minor criminal charges and must be in excellent physical condition. "We dont accept murderers, child abusers or anyone who represents a security risk. Being part this team is a privilege," said Sergeant Danny Brown.

It is also a privilege that requires more than 12 weeks of strenuous physical training and work, as well as a minimum educational level.

"The priority is education. Not only must they prove that they are strong but that they want to move forward. When they leave, many of them start careers as firefighters," said Robert Patterson, spokesman for the Corona Women's Detention Center, the only training camp for women in the state.

Photo by Claudia Nez

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