Cuba Gooding Jr., female Fire fighters, Female Offenders, Firelight movie

What I Learned in Prison: In Front and Behind Bars #7



Did any of you catch the movie “Firelight,” this past Sunday night? It was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production that aired on ABC. Cuba Gooding Jr. played Dwayne Johnson (“DJ”), a counselor at a fire camp housed on the grounds of a youth correctional facility. The theme of redemption, belief in oneself, and perseverance were handled well.

It was eerie watching the movie as if I had stepped back in time and gone back to work. One of the main characters had the exact name as someone I supervised. I wondered if the script had been written by one of my co-workers or perhaps a previous firefighter in the program. The credits listed Ligiah Villalobos as the writer (of Under the Same Moon fame). A few things about the movie: open rooms, correctional officers all over the place, and the slightly sanitized atmosphere was different. 

The troubled lives, manipulations and games, the uniforms, and the physical work was done by the female offenders were the same. Their backgrounds as drug users, gang members, abused, and often ‘broken’ lives is also true.


 Inmate firefighting crews have been in California for over 50 years. These camps have developed some darn good crew members who have saved millions of dollars in property and saved lives. For five years I managed a  fire camp of both young men and women. (They were segregated by a fence). My male crews were Crew’s 1-4 and my female crew was Crew 5. It was one of the best assignments during my career with the California Department of Corrections (CDC).  

In my series on What I Learned in Prison I’ve said:

 females on both sides of the bars encounter problems within a correctional facility. 

For the incarcerated young women, there is the problem of self-esteem, lack of confidence, little education, and less than optimum health. It was inspiring to see self-doubting girls turn into physically and mentally strong firefighting crew members in 60-90 days, and I’m not talking about just the female offenders. The female staff went through similar fire education and safety training. Correctional staff accompanied firefighting crews on public works projects, during fire control and actual fire rolls.  

Stereotypes, bias, and some male chauvinism reared it’s head during this training. Sometimes from the California Department of Forestry (CDF) staff teaching the courses, CDC staff, and sometimes from male crew members. Crew 5 often endured catcalls from the inmate male crews, comments like ‘we’ll have all the harder work now that they’re here,’ to jokes about lowered standards. 

Photos by Hallmark Productions

What I remember most are the patronizing attitude of some male staff, the dismissive looks, and the stereotypes some of the male staff believed.  The female offenders weren’t the only one’s to encounter these attitudes.

During my own training, which was far less physically demanding than the female offenders, one of the Fire Captains attempted to flunk me in a test. Part of the exam was to deploy a fire shelter within seconds, scramble under it and hold it down with my knees and elbows. The Fire Captain then yanked on it to ensure the shelter was tight. My tester yanked the shelter several times…until he tore it. I was the Camp Superintendent, I imagined he did that or worse to all of my female staff. He had, I later found out. He transferred soon after. 


Women on both sides of the bar learned to confront the attitudes and handle it, often times supporting one another through cheers, encouraging words, or a pat on the back. 

On one of the websites, announcing the movie, I found a comment that reflects my thoughts on the movie:
“Great movie and moving presentation of the crews work. States with such crews do a great job in assist normal crews and provides a future for detainees. Congratulations to Hallmark again.” Tom Smith, retired Batallion Captain.

Although I appreciate Captain Smith’s comment, notice the use of ‘normal’ crews. I’m sure he meant civilian firefighting crews. 

When  we received our first CDF female Fire Captain we knew that she had to have endured a lot more than we did to become a Fire Captain. Her presence also showed the female offenders that becoming a Fire Captain could be attained.
When I think back about that time, I know I was fortunate to have a few staff members, both in CDC and CDF, like DJ (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who made the female firefighting program a success for several years.  Along the way, the program helped to change the dismissive attitudes about women firefighters and their capabilities. 

More importantly, it taught the women, on both sides of the bars, that even with prevailing negative attitudes they could handle difficulties with perseverance, support, and belief in themselves.   



2 thoughts on “What I Learned in Prison: In Front and Behind Bars #7”

  1. I’d like to learn if there is any advocacy group that supports women firefighters at the fire camps from abuse from fire captains. Do you have any contact information to any group like this? Tom


  2. I do not have any personal contacts, but this organization might be able to assist you:
    Just Detention International, 3325 Wilshire BlvdSuite 340 Los Angeles, CA 90010 (213) 384-1400
    Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.
    Also notify the correctional camp superintendent and/or the fire Chief of the women firefighter camp, if that is an option the firefighter wants to utilize. If that is not satisfactory, write or call the director of camps and the wildland fire director.


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