Lived an Inmate, But Died a Hero

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by Amelia Anderson

On 11/11 at 11 a.m. in Sunland Park, we will honor Veterans who fought to keep our country free; and on 11/17 at 6 p.m., we will share dinner at All Nations Church to thank firefighters who saved our homes and land. Absent will be the roughly 4,000 prisoners who comprise “the inmate hand crews that make up 50 to 80 percent of the total fire personnel at any fire you go on statewide, whether it be small or large,” says Lt. Keith Radey, the commander in charge of a women’s conservation camp.

Several states employ prisoners to fight fires, but none rely as heavily on inmate population as California. In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown told a local CBS affiliate, “It’s very important when we can quantify that manpower, utilize it. In fact, the Conservation Camp Program not only provides rehabilitation, it saves California taxpayers approximately $100 million a year. But not without sacrifice. This story, chronicling the life of a Lancaster woman, appeared in the New York Times Magazine and was excerpted November 3 in THE WEEK.

“SHAWNA LYNN JONES climbed from the back of a red truck with “LA County Fire” printed on its side. Ten more women piled out, on the border of Agoura Hills and Malibu. They could see flames at Mulholland Highway, from a fire that had been burning for about an hour. Jones and her crew wore helmets and yellow Nomex fire-retardant suits; yellow handkerchiefs covered their mouths and necks. Each carried 50 pounds of equipment in her backpack. As the “second saw,” Jones was one of two women who carried a chainsaw. She was also one of California’s 250 female inmate firefighters.

Jones worked side by side with Jessica, the “second bucker,” who collected whatever wood Jones cut down. Together they “set the line,” which meant clearing potential fuel from a six-foot-wide stretch of ground between whatever was burning and the land they were trying to protect. If they did their job right, a fire might be contained. But things could quickly go wrong — a slight wind shift, the fall of a burning tree — and the fire would jump the break.

On Feb. 25, 2016 at 3 a.m. and ahead of aerial support and local fire trucks, the 12-woman crew arrived at the Mulholland fire. The inmates went to work, operating in hookline formation, moving in order of rank, which was determined by task and ability. The first saw, or hook, leads; the second saw is next. Mulholland was Jones first fire as second saw; she’d just been promoted.

This part of Southern California is full of ravines and dry brush, prone to landslides, flash floods and wildfires. The women scrambled over a slope that was full of loose soil and rocks, which made digging the containment line trench even more challenging. “It was steep; the fire was jumping.”

Every step forward felt like they were slipping. But by 7:30 a.m., a little more than a third of the fire was contained. Malibu 13-3 had done its job: the fire no longer threatened homes, ranches, or coastal properties.

By 10 the next morning, Jones was dead. She was 22. Her three-year sentence had less than two months to go.

Shawna Lynn Jones had grown up wanting to be a Police K-9 handler. Her mom showed early photos of her daughter dressed in navy blue head to toe with aviator shades. Jones was smart, but as a teen she couldn’t sit still in class. Having dropped out of class by May 2014, Shawna was caught sitting in a car next to her boyfriend and a large quantity of crystal methamphetamine. He had a lengthy record and didn’t want to be locked up for life, so she took the rap. Joining the Firefighter Program, she accepted the risk to escape the violence of prison life.

Conservation Camp in the canyons of Malibu provided civility, hikes. a bit of cash, and ocean-eucalyptus smells.

By November 2015, calls home reported exhaustion sandbagging hillsides. But, she confided, “It helps to work a sister crew, ’cause really all you have is each other.” Pride swelled when kids propped up signs, “Thank you for saving our house, my dog.” But that day the earth gave way, and she diddn’t hear the warning “Rock!” over her saw.

Shawna gave her life for this program, and L.A. County made sure she did not leave without full dress. As Jones body was driven to Eternal Valley, a fire company crew was stationed on every overpass, standing on their trucks, saluting in full uniform. Outside her funeral, rows of sheriffs and deputies stood at attention, right hands at their brows. Two fire trucks were parked at the entrance with ladders raised and crossed. Shawna Lynn Jones lived as an inmate and died as an honored firefighter.

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