The BRIDGE (Building, Rehabilitating, Instructing, Developing, Growing, Employing) Program is a cooperative effort between the Department of Adult Correction and the N.C. Forest Service to train and utilize non-violent young offenders, providing rehabilitation and education while helping manage the state's natural resources.
Crew members come from Foothills Correctional Institution and Caldwell Correctional Center. They learn the skills of fire control and fire management, along with conservation and woodworking. While the program’s primary goal is to provide well-trained and equipped forest firefighting crews ready at a moment's notice, another goal is to develop a strong work ethic and work skills so offenders will be able to secure a job when they are released.
BRIDGE crew members must meet certain criteria to be selected for the program. They must be between the ages of 18-32, must not be convicted of sexual assault crimes, or any serious assaults that are predatory in nature and result in injury. Offenders must be in 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. Crew members can receive training certificates in wildland fire fighting, chainsaw operation, UTV operation, earn a forklift operator’s 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 prison.
Twenty exceptional crew members who have shown to be highly motivated with an excellent work ethic are chosen to participate as members of the N.C. Forest Service Helicopter Strike Team (Helitack). These crew members are trained in wildland fire fighting helicopter operations and are assigned to three helicopters located in western North Carolina. When the helicopters are dispatched to a wildfire, the offenders fly to the scene and provide initial attack suppression efforts on the blaze.
BRIDGE helps crew members develop a solid 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%. Statistics show only 12% of BRIDGE "graduates" are likely to come back into the prison system.
To date, more than 5,100 inmates have gone through the program, working more than 2.7 million man-hours. This has saved the state more than $25 million in labor costs.
BRIDGE was conceived in 1985 after a devastating spring fire season in western 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 offenders ages 18-21 in January 1986. Today, as many as 73 crew members may be enrolled at any one time.
In 1987, the Avery County Commissioners invited the first permanent camp to be built there, and construction started with money appropriated by the General Assembly. Crew members were used to construct the camp, which became the Blue Ridge Youth Center and later re-named Blue Ridge Correctional Center.
The first crewmen moved into the facility in November of 1990. A second dorm was completed in 1992, which brought the total capacity to 48. Blue Ridge Correctional Center closed in October 2002, but BRIDGE then operated at Western Youth Institution in Morganton before utilizing the current setup.
For more information, please contact the BRIDGE office at 828-438-6267.