Not that many decades ago, chain gangs were dragged out to do work on roads and other jobs needing to be done. Men were, literally, chained to one another and forced to work like beasts of burden. Why not—some people reasoned—they're bad guys in jail and nobody gets a free lunch.
Jails and state prisons are now known as correctional institutions which hopefully do what the name implies: help criminals to become worthwhile citizens who will do things for their community, not to it.
Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras is trying to do just that—present a sense of responsibility and citizenship to those inmates who want to listen and learn. To accomplish this goal they need help and collaboration, and it has come in the form of US Forest Service fire management.
As we speak, there are 10 inmates from Deer Ridge working their tails off daily doing what they want to do—not as they're ordered to do—helping the Forest Service with a fuels reduction project out in the Deschutes National Fores Bend-Fort Rock District.
Even though the inmates are classified as minimum security, a guard is along to remind them that there is firm reality in the, honor system.
Rusty Langston from over in The Valley, is serving time at Deer Ridge, and is on the USFS team. He's not only having a good time at helping with fuels reduction—cutting and piling the hundreds of small pines left behind by the cutting crew, but he places the larger logs close to the road for wood-cutters to haul home.
"Yeah," Rusty says, "I really like to be outside among the trees and wildlife. This project is providing me with the opportunity to acquire new skills that I can use to get a job as a firefighter when I get out." With a big grin, he adds, "I used to smoke, and I knew it wasn't good for my health. Now with the no tobacco rules at Deer Ridge, I found I can— and have—quit."
In 1994, Oregon voters enacted a constitutional amendment, Measure 17, that requires correctional institutions to actively engage inmates in full-time work and/or on-the-job training. In order to hold institutions accountable and ensure they comply with the intent of the measure, the Oregon Department of Corrections maintains data on daily work and program assignments for each inmate.
Chris Coleman, is the work program coordinator at Deer Ridge and is pleased as punch to see the men happily at work, thinking of the new skills they are acquiring that will help them to get a job when they leave the correction facility.
"My job is to find work for them to do while their with us at Deer Ridge," she says. "Sure the guys working in the kitchen wash dishes and tables, but some of them may find it fun to do a little cooking, and learning nutritional skills that could go somewhere when they get out."
There are a minimum of 760 inmates at Deer Ridge, but not all are eligible to work outside. Some have medical as well as mental issues that require 24/7 contact with medical personnel of the institution, and therefore can't be allowed to work on outside projects.
However, over 250 of the inmates are eligible for outdoor work, it is a first-come-first-learn situation. But those who do get into the chainsaw school are exposed to a high quality safety campaign which has, so far, kept accidents down to a bare minimum.
Nick Swagger, a USFS fuels technician, works daily with the inmates from Deer Ridge says, "Without question, the Forest Service chainsaw safety lessons we teach have worked to prevent any serious injuries on these kinds of fuel reduction projects."
He further states that such inmate work programs are a great help in releasing first response crews to fight wildlife in the summer seasons, and then putting the inmates to work fighting fire when needed.
Danny Meadows, formally of Gilchrist, is also serving his sentence at Deer Ridge, and is one of the work crew who passed the chainsaw safety course. Before being confined, he was experienced fighting wildfires and has his eye on working for either the State Forestry Division or USFS when he leaves Deer Ridge behind.
His experience fighting wildfires goes back to the Tillamook forest fires and, more recently, the Waterman Complex near Mitchell, and Lost Hubcap Fire near John Day.
The goals for the state's correction institutions states: "The mission of the Oregon Department of Corrections is to promote public safety by holding offenders accountable for their actions and reducing the risk of future criminal behavior."
The inmates that take part in the USFS fuels reduction projects are living those goals and also are exposed to a great deal of what they will need to stay away from any criminal behavior when the locked doors shut behind them.