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Meet Arizona's all-women inmate firefighting crew

Posted at 5:19 AM, Nov 15, 2017

Twenty women from the Perryville prison complex make up the only all-female inmate firefighting crew in the state. 

"I've learned so much about myself -- how strong I am," Elizabeth Gama told ABC15 while working on a maintenance project in north Scottsdale. Gama was sent to Perryville in 2014 after a drug-related conviction and joined the Perryville crew last year.

"It's a way of giving back to the community," she said. "We're trying to repair what we've done before."

Through a partnership between the state corrections and forestry departments, there are now more than 200 inmates serving on eleven wildland firefighting crews. All are considered low-level offenders and must apply, be cleared through counselors and wardens, and complete the same federal wildland firefighter training as anyone else.

"I'd put this crew up against any crew," said Perryville Fire Crew Captain Joe Barreras. 

"As they're going through the steps and the fires and the projects -- you can just, kind of, see the glow that comes with them, the sense of pride," he said. 

Inmates on firefighting crews earn between 50 cents and $1.50 per hour depending on the type of work. During wildfire season, the crew can work up to sixteen hours per day for fourteen consecutive days. 

"You learn to love each other and you grow together," said Ellamay Kline, who joined the Perryville crew eight months ago. 

Kline is hoping to be released by March and, because of the program, wants to pursue a career in firefighting. 

"I've pushed myself to limits I didn't know I had," she said.  

Inmate fire crews have existed in Arizona since the 1980s. Earlier this year, the state announced the formation of a new wildland firefighting crew exclusively for former inmates.