Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires

Jaime Lowe. MCD, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-11618-7
Journalist Lowe (Mental) tackles climate change, mass incarceration, and the “war on drugs” in this deeply reported if uneven account of California’s inmate firefighting crews. Focusing on incarcerated women who make up this “near invisible workforce,” Lowe recounts how Shawna Lynn Jones died in 2016, less than two months before her scheduled release, while fighting a fire in Malibu. Other profile subjects include Whitney (no last name given), a former supply analyst for Patagonia and ultra-marathoner who served time for gross vehicular manslaughter, and Marquet (no last name given), who tithed the roughly $2 per hour she made fighting fires. Lowe traces the origins of California’s inmate firefighting program to a labor shortage caused by WWII, and contends that the state has saved billions of dollars by paying inmate firefighters paltry wages. She also critiques the criminal justice system at large, documenting prison overcrowding and inadequate health care for inmates, but the book is at its strongest when it leaves aside the statistics and stays focused on the lives of prisoners as they train to fight wildfires, reflect on their crimes, and struggle to find gainful employment after prison. The result is a powerful and affecting portrait of the “inherent flaws” of using prison labor to save California from climate disaster. (July)
Reviewed on : 04/08/2021
Release date: 07/27/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-1-250-84921-2
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