FEMAle Inmate Kitchen Crew Feeds Firefighters at Smith Ranch Fire
Incident: Smith Ranch Fire Wildfire
ELKO, Nev. The task: Prepare a hot breakfast, hearty bag lunches and a three-course dinner for 250 firefighters in a cow pasture with no running water. The pay: A dollar an hour and a day knocked off their sentences for every eight hours worked.
A kitchen crew of 14 female inmates from the Jean Conservation Camp in Las Vegas have been providing meals for firefighters this week on the Smith Ranch Fire, about 25 miles southeast of Elko.
Ranging in age from 21 to 48, the women are all minimum-security prisoners who are being rewarded with the privilege of working outside the conservation camp fence after making it through a rigorous screening process, passing a physical-fitness test and undergoing a comprehensive training program.
Another reward: What one crew member called "big old smiles" from the firefighters working on the 2,777-acre blaze. After a long hot day building line, and a few days subsisting on Meals-Ready-to-Eat, the firefighters are not hesitant to let the kitchen crew know how much they appreciate tucking into a real meal.
"A lot of us never had that appreciation before," said the crew member. "So to have it is great."
The meal on tap this particular evening: 8-oz. New York steaks, black bean chili, cheesy mashed potatoes and three different types of salad, followed by freshly baked apple pie.
The Nevada Division of Forestry and the Nevada Department of Corrections jointly run nine minimum-security conservation camps throughout the state where inmates serve sentences, while doing project work and serving on emergency-response crews for wildland fire suppression, flood control, search and rescue, and ice and snow removal.
Although much of the work the inmate crews perform is unpaid, they generate about $1.4 million annually for the state's general fund.
Only the Jean location houses female inmates. During the past two years, Jean crews have worked more than 12,000 hours on 28 emergency incidents.
When they arrive at a fire, the crew can have their kitchen up and running within an hour. Their normal workday begins at 3 a.m., and except for a few hours' rest in the mid-day heat, ends an hour short of midnight.
Wearing hairnets and disposable gloves, the women prepare and cook meals on a portable outdoor two-sided range, then serve the food in a cafeteria-style line. After each meal, they do clean up. They are also responsible each day for making sandwiches and stuffing multiple lunch items into a legion of paper sacks.
At night, they bed down in tents, watched over by a female correctional officer. She takes roll call, escorts them on any night-time Porta Potty visits, counts them hourly throughout the night, and wakes them up when it's time to go back to work.
Working on the kitchen crew teaches the women a trade, which they can use to earn a living after their release. Many of the younger women had never learned to cook.
The kitchen crews are "a good local resource" for fires that aren't big enough to warrant a national caterer, said Jean camp supervisor Jon Shogren. The state also has two male inmate kitchen crews.
Crew boss Bruce Travis said the inmates really appreciate the opportunity to work on the crews, and the experience can bring out the best in them.
"If you get people out of that negative environment, you can see there's more to them," said Travis.
Another inmate said she was grateful for all the skills she has learned, including food preparation, cooking, food safety, cleanliness and presentation. Being outdoors was also a bonus.
"Especially at night-time when it's dark, and you see all the stars," she said. "It's just all-round rewarding."