Inmate firefighter Shawna Lynn Jones was laid to rest Friday with a full line-of-duty memorial service conducted by the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
In addition to a memorial service with full honor guard, Jones’ family was presented with an award commemorating her firefighting service, presented by the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.
Jones’ tragic and unexpected death on Friday, Feb. 26, has shed light on a 70-year-old program that some in the area did not know existed before last month: conservation camps.
The camps, a program through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), train and dispatch nearly 4,000 state and county inmates to help prevent and fight wildfires around the State of California.
Jones was working with a crew from Malibu’s all-women Conservation Camp 13 to contain a brush fire just west of Malibu city limits on Thursday, Feb. 25, when she was struck in the head by a rock. She was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center, and the following day she was taken off life support at the request of her family and her organs were donated.
Jones was volunteering as an inmate firefighter while serving time in Los Angeles County Jail. Jones joined the program in August of last year and was placed at the Malibu camp, one of three all-female camps in the state.
“Her death is a tragic reminder of the danger that inmate firefighters face when they volunteer to confront fires to save homes and lives,” CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan said in a prepared statement released at the time. “On behalf of all of us in the department, I send my deepest condolences to her family.”
Those condolences aren’t going far enough, according to some members of the Malibu community who expressed outrage over the existence of conservation camps.
“Shame on our community for not compensating, with decent wages, those risking their lives to confront fires to save homes and lives,” Malibu resident Valerie Sklarevsky said during public comments at last week’s Malibu Planning Commission meeting.
Sklarevsky has also written two letters to the editor of The Malibu Times, saying at one point that “inmate labor equals modern day slavery.”
According to CDCR spokesperson Bill Sessa, this assessment is far from accurate, based on what inmates he has heard from have said.
“I’ll share a story with you, if I may,” Sessa said during a phone interview with The Malibu Times. “In the fall, we had a lot of large fires burning, and I was asked to go on a radio show in Los Angeles — it was public radio in Los Angeles — to talk about the program, and the first lady who called in laid that claim, claiming that we were taking advantage of the inmates.”
Sessa said her claim was refuted by those with personal experience.
“The next three callers were either families of inmate firefighters or former inmates who had worked on fire crews, and every single one of them said they were proud to do the job,” Sessa said. “One woman said, ‘My brother-in-law is on a crew right now, and I can hear the pride in his voice whenever we’re on the phone.’”
Sessa’s description is reinforced by a published interview by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan online journalism organization that interviewed a former inmate firefighter last summer.
“The fire camps were so popular with inmates — everybody was trying to be on good behavior so that they could be eligible to go,” former fire crew inmate Jacques D’Elia told The Marshall Project.
D’Elia said that when he earned his spot on a fire crew, his life in prison changed.
This is in line with what Sessa said when describing the camps.
“Prisoners appreciate the atmosphere in the camp, especially when it comes to visiting days, when their family gets to come visit with them, and they see their children in a camp as opposed to a prison, when you see all th e security apparatus that exists in a prison.”
Sessa said inmates spend their days in camps doing structured conservation work in the area, when they aren’t called to be on a fire line.
“They might be doing fire prevention by doing brush clearance, or thinning out a forest, or clearing a hiking trail,” Sessa described. “This year, they were spending a lot of time cleaning out flood channels. They are on a community service project of some form every day they are not on a fire line.”
Inmates undergo four weeks of training before beginning work at the camps. According to Sessa, the program will not be changed because of what happened to Jones.
“Obviously, it’s a tragic accident,” Sessa said, adding that inmates are under direction of a full time professional fire-fighting captain while they are on the fire line. “[A fire captain] will not put a crew in an unsafe place. They take the same care in where they place our inmate crews as they do with their civilian crews, and this is ... it was a rare and unfortunate and very tragic incident.”
The “tragic incident” that claimed Jones’ life has also put a financial burden on her family, according to the Fire Family Foundation website, the charitable hand of Firefighters First Credit Union, which so far has raised $1,500 toward funeral expenses.
Money is still being collected to help support Jones’ mother and siblings.
“The Shawna Lynn Jones Fund will support her family in this time of grief,” the website reads.
Donations may be made to the fund at firefamilyfoundation.org.
Julie Ellerton contributed to this report.