CROSSNORE, N. C. — Dale Brittain has no illusions that the forestry program he supervises for young prison inmates will help all of them, but authorities say a little respect and some incentives can go a long way toward helping some.
"When you're at the bottom and have never had anything, anything is important to you," Brittain said. "These boys come from a rough background. Some of them you're going to change, some of them you're not."
Work in Mountains
Inmates who participate in the BRIDGE program range in age from 18 to 25 and learn such skills as carpentry, forestry, logging and fighting forest fires in the state's three mountain districts.
BRIDGE is an acronym for Building, Rehabilitating, Instructing, Developing, Growing and Employing.
Brittain credits the program's success to incentives.
There is "gain time"--for every eight hours a BRIDGE inmate works, a day is subtracted from his sentence. The inmates wear special uniforms with logging boots and get a break from prison food by eating at restaurants near work sites.
At the program's administrative offices at the Burke Youth Center, there is a display of photographs of the participants, with the inmate of the month at the top. That is another incentive, Brittain said, because some of the inmates have never had an 8-by-10 photograph of themselves.
'Did Something Wrong'
"They're not Boy Scouts," added Carl Johnson, who directs the BRIDGE program from Raleigh. "They did something wrong. But, if you treat them well, you get something back."
The participants in Avery County are constructing buildings that will house up to 50 inmates in the program.
Pointing to five young inmates skimming the bark off a pine tree at a makeshift sawmill, Gary Poole, a Division of Forest Resources project leader, said, "That's a good crew right there. They actually hunt work to do."
Nearby, several young men used hammers and handsaws to put the finishing touches on one of three buildings resembling vacation lodges that are perched on a hillside in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Learns Sawmill Work
Inmate Tony Walker, who is serving a three-year sentence for breaking and entering, had never seen a sawmill before but took to the work quickly.
"It's a lot better than sitting around all day," said Walker, 22, who entered the program about four months ago and has about seven months left. "They treat you just like you're at work."
Some inmates are chosen to work on the "helitack crew," which fights forest fires from a bright yellow helicopter equipped with a collapsible water bucket.
While they are building the camp facilities, the program's 26 inmates are temporarily housed at the Burke Youth Center. Instructors from nearby Mayland Community College have provided training in carpentry and masonry, but no professional contractors have been hired.
"A lot of it we just beat and bang and learn ourselves," Brittain said.
A Chance to Develop Skills
Harry Layman, director of the Division of Forest Resources, said that the young prisoners have a chance to develop skills, such as carpentry and plumbing, and they are also attracted to the program because they are treated less like inmates.
"Our nicest compliment on the program was (when) one young man gave up his parole to stay in the program," Layman said. "The kids begin to feel part of something. We treat them with respect."
Since the program was begun in 1986, it has taken in 206 inmates. About a dozen have reentered the prison system, Brittain said. Others have been hired by the state forestry division and private employers.
The youths volunteer for the program and are carefully screened, Brittain said.
Program Resembles CCC
Layman compared the program with the Civilian Conservation Corps begun by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression.
"It's using the forest as remedial," he said. "There is something healing about taking them out in the woods and letting them work with nature.
"We cut down the logs, then build the camp ourselves with our forestry supervisors and the inmate labor," he said.
Layman said the program was born from a union of the state's prison and forestry divisions after a fire in Burke County destroyed 47 homes built on "little switchback roads."
The program is one of just two east of the Mississippi, state forest officials said. The other is in Florida. The BRIDGE program, modeled after similar programs in California and Oregon, uses only young, minimum-custody prisoners.
Earns Time Off
Melvin Bruton, 21, has been in the program 19 months. He has earned 674 hours of "gain time"--enough for more than 2 1/2 months off his sentence--and has nearly completed a 13-year prison term for breaking and entering.
"You hear of forest fires on TV," Bruton said. "They offered it to me, and I thought it would give me a change from regular prison."
Bruton has learned carpentry, landscaping and the operation of heavy equipment, such as bulldozers and a "knuckleboom loader" used by the logging industry. He has also spent 18 months on the helitack team.
"I've learned so much," he said. "I didn't know nothing before I came in."