RAINBOW: Firefighting inmates

Rainbow: Firefighting inmates

27 December 2008

published by www.nctimes.com

USA — In many ways, reading to their children is a dramatic departure from daily life for inmates at the Rainbow Women’s Camp.

During a fire, the inmates’ main job is to cut fire lines in hopes of stalling a wildfire’s advance, said corrections Officer Humphrey, who declined to give her first name for security reasons.

“They work every day, and they get $1 a day —- $1 an hour on a fire,” Humphrey said. “One dollar a day doesn’t sound like much, but when you’ve got six to eight years, it adds up.”

The inmates say their work, while a welcome departure from the routine of prison life, is often frightening and always taxing.

“I was scared to death of ever going on a fire, and the first fire call I got I prayed that it would be canceled, and it wasn’t,” said Dani Andrus, who has a little less than two years left to serve. “It’s very scary. It gets your adrenaline going, I’ll tell you that.”

The road leading to the camp is winding and narrow, and the facility itself is on a serene plateau isolated from the noise and activity of nearby Temecula.

Inmates are there for a variety of serious infractions, and they must exhibit a combination of good behavior and physical fitness to transfer out of prison to the Rainbow facility.

The fitness requirement is necessary because the women spend five days a week doing hard labor —- fighting fires during wildfire season and doing fire prevention work for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, the rest of the time.

A contingent of CalFire specialists is stationed there. During the week, the engineers take a crew of 15 women out in one of the six red transports, which look like oversized ambulances painted fire-engine red.

Besides dormitories for the inmates, the camp has a cafeteria, laundry room, library, gym and two TV rooms.

“We kind of had to separate it, because we have the soap opera girls and the sports girls, and they were always fighting over who got to watch what,” Humphrey explained, breezing past a handful of inmates watching football.

Over the years, the Rainbow inmates have worked on about 90 fires throughout the state, amassing upward of 50,000 hours.

On multiday fires, which are common during Santa Ana season, the crews will set up a base camp, and even though there is only one CalFire engineer and one corrections officer to oversee 15 inmates on such overnight trips, Humphrey said there are rarely security problems.

“If and when there’s an issue, they will call us and we’d pick them up,” she said.

Added Mark Lopez, a CalFire captain stationed in Rainbow, “We’re very busy (on a fire), so very rarely do we have custodial problems.”

In contrast to a traditional prison, life at the Rainbow Women’s Camp is busy, to say the least.

Sundays are a day to rest, and, the inmates say, to reflect on lost time.

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