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Inmates fight fires to serve communities

By Jim Conrad, jconrad@wcyb.com
Published On: Apr 10 2014 04:54:21 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 10 2014 09:12:13 PM CDT

A cooperative agreement between the Virginia Corrections Department and the forestry department allows inmates to get out and help fight wildfires.

RUSSELL COUNTY, Va. -

When a wildfire breaks out in Southwest Virginia, it's not airplanes and helicopters filled with water that bring things under control -- it's firefighters on the ground, doing the nitty-gritty work of constructing fire lines up and down our steep mountains.

Since 1996, some crews on the front lines are low-risk, nonviolent offenders from the Commonwealth's Corrections Department.

It's a dirty, difficult job to clear a fire line by hand. The idea is to clear all leaves and vegetation to keep the fire contained.

Some of those out there on the line are not a normal firefighting crew, but inmates from the Appalachian Corrections Facility in Russell County. They're part of a force of about 160 low-risk, nonviolent offenders who are out there saving homes and forests, and maybe saving themselves. "It's a very, very strict program that we're in. Most of us are some type of drug offender, first-time offenders. It really beats sitting back in, when I say the facility," inmate Reginald Lambright said.

It's back-breaking work, but when successful, there's a since of accomplishment for the inmates. "You know there's a feeling that you get when you help out somebody else that you can't duplicate anywhere else. It's something that makes you feel better about yourself and it gives you a good feeling," facility superintendent Berk Artrip says.

"These offenders learn a sense of public service that they may not have had in the past. What we've found here when we bring them out, construct fire lines, and they protect a structure, somebody's home or the forestland, they get a real sense of accomplishment about that," Steve Counts with the Department of Forestry adds.

A sense that they can make a difference not just in our communities, but a difference in themselves at the same time. "They can look at your record and see that you're trying to change your ways and the way you think," inmate Harley Taylor said.

The inmates from the facility give about a thousand hours of community service back to the community each week. We learned that the majority will not become repeat offenders, but good citizens.