Young Offenders Forest Conservation Program (BRIDGE)
The BRIDGE (BUILDING, REHABILITATING, INSTRUCTING, DEVELOPING, GROWING, EMPLOYING) Program is a cooperative effort between the NC Forest Service and the NC Division of Prisons based out of Western Youth Institution in Morganton, NC. The primary goal of the program is to provide well-trained and equipped forest fire fighting crews ready at a moment's notice. A secondary, but important goal is to develop a strong work ethic and work skills so inmates will be able to secure a job when they are released.
The program was conceived in 1985 after a devastating spring fire season in the western part of North Carolina. A feasibility study was conducted in 1986 and the program was implemented in 1987 in Burke County. BRIDGE began with a group of 18 minimum-security inmates. Today, up to 84 inmates may be enrolled at any one time.
Inmates enrolled in BRIDGE must meet certain criteria to be selected for the program. Inmates must be between the ages of 18-25, must not be convicted of sexual assualt crimes, or any serious assaults that are predatory in nature and result in injury. Inmates must be minimum custody and in good physical condition.
In addition to wildland fire fighting, BRIDGE offers a variety of vocational opportunities; including trail construction and maintenance, painting and sandblasting, landscaping, portable sawmill operation, forest management, masonry, plumbing, and electrical work. Inmates can receive training certificates in wildland fire fighting, chainsaw operation, gator/ATV operation, earn a forklift operators license, and enroll in light construction courses offered through Western Piedmont Community College. BRIDGE can also be used as a job reference when applying for employment following release from the prison system.
Twenty exceptional inmates in the program are allowed to participate as members of the NC Forest Service Helicopter Strike Team (Helitack). These inmates are trained in wildland fire fighting helicopter operations and are assigned to three helicopters located in western NC. When the helicopters are dispatched to a wildfire, the inmates fly to the scene and provide initial attack suppression efforts on the blaze. Inmates must highly motivated and have an excellent work ethic to be considered for the Helitack team.
BRIDGE is an excellent program for the young inmate and the citizens of North Carolina. It helps an inmate build a work ethic and provides useful hands on training in numerous job skills to help him become a productive member of society. Nationally, the rate of return to prison for this age group is about 35%. Early statistics show only 12% of BRIDGE. "graduates" are likely to come back into the prison system. To date, more than 3,400 youths have gone through the program, working more than 1.7 million man-hours. This has saved North Carolina more than 12 million dollars in labor costs.
The Young Offenders Forest Conservation Program (BRIDGE) has proven itself to be a success in supplying trained firefighters, rehabilitating inmates, and saving the tax paying citizens of North Carolina hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. It is not only a success for the state, but also any inmate who participates in this unique and rewarding program.
For more information, please contact the BRIDGE office at 828-438-6267