On Oregon 6, a highway west of Portland, there’s a turnoff. Motorists pass it every day as they head to the coast or to go camping. Take that turn—a gravel road that twists up along the Wilson River—and you’ll find South Fork Forest Camp, 27 acres nestled between the curves of the Tillamook State Forest. At first glance, you might think you’ve stumbled across a summer camp. There’s a softball field next to a rushing stream, a vegetable garden, and the air is a mixture of birdsong, sunlight and sweet smelling Douglas-fir.

But there are no kids here, just men. 
And stamped on their backs is one word: inmate.

For most prisoners in Oregon’s correctional system, serving time means putting life on pause. Traditionally, inmates spend their sentences in isolated cells or dorms, removed from society to ponder their punishment. But at South Fork Forest Camp, things are different. This 200-bed, minimum-security prison run by the Oregon Department of Corrections and the Oregon Department of Forestry employs inmates to provide Oregon with cost-effective labor that benefits the local community. That includes tree planting, helping operate a fish hatchery, maintaining of campgrounds and trails, and firefighting. At the same time, South Fork lowers the likelihood of reoffending by encouraging good behavior and teaching skills that will help inmates be better citizens upon release.

For inmates at South Fork, life doesn’t pause. In fact, for many, it’s the first time their lives move forward.

South Fork’s story begins with fire, the devastating, roaring, all-consuming kind of fire that sucks the color from the earth. With one spark and a fateful shift of the wind on August 14th, 1933, a series of wildfires known as the Tillamook Burn struck at six-year intervals through 1951, obliterating 500 square miles of forest. The fires ripped through so much land that the state struggled to afford the cost of reforestation. So in 1951, state foresters and corrections officials agreed to create a work camp, located in the heart of The Burn, to help plant 72 million seedlings. South Fork Forest Camp was born.

In the same way the first South Fork inmates helped bring greenery and life back to a charred wasteland, today’s camp continues to provide those who’ve hit their version of rock bottom a chance to plant a different seed.

An inmate who asked that he not be identified by his given name arrived as an inmate at South Fork in 2006, 18 months into his four and half year sentence on drug charges. For this story, I’ll refer to him by his middle name—Joseph.

For Joseph, who had struggled for most of his life with drugs and alcohol, South Fork not only served as the wake up call he needed to get sober, it also became the training ground for his future career with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. While at South Fork, Joseph was one of two inmates assigned to manage the small fish hatchery at the camp. Because of the mentorship, knowledge and skills he gained at South Fork, he was hired by ODFW once he finished his sentence and now works full time at an Oregon hatchery. “This was not anything that was ever on my radar as far as a career, South Fork opened that door,” says Joseph.

Everything at South Fork is built from the ground up by inmates. They make and repair their own trucks and camp is equipped with workspaces for welding, engine repair, sewing and woodwork. If a state department office needs a new custom desk, the inmates at South Fork can make it. Onsite mechanic Tony Grier calls South Fork’s self-sufficiency and talent “the best kept secret in Oregon.” Along with the technical skills required for work, South Fork inmates are trained in CPR and first aid, and complete an arduous week of forest fire-fighting school to become certified firefighters.

To qualify for South Fork, inmates cannot have a history of arson, sex crimes, restraining orders, stalking, escape or bad behavior in prison. They must be a maximum of three years away from their release date and be physically capable of strenuous activity. The most common crimes for inmates at South Fork are drug related. Other common offenses include white-collar crimes, burglary or theft.

Nathan Seable is ODF’s South Fork Camp Manager. With personal experience in forest recreation, ranching and mentoring troubled youth at high-security correctional facilities, he says his job at South Fork is the perfect combination of his love for natural resources and rehabilitation. For him, South Fork is special because it takes inmates who have little or no experience in the woods and turns them into stewards of the land. Like with any hard work, Seable says there’s no shortage of grumbling and complaining from the inmates on tough days.

“But most of them I think catch the vision and take a lot of great pride in being able to say, ‘look what I did,’” Seable says.

A walk through South Fork’s workshops with Seable yields few traditional markers of a prison. No fence, no bars, no one-way glass, just workshops. An inmate sees Seable and seeks out his opinion on the mock-up of a sign. They discuss wood types—cedar or oak?—and whether to paint on the letters or burn them into the wood. “We’ve got some pretty talented guys in the shop,” says Seable as he turns to leave. The inmate’s reply joins the chorus of workshop saws and nearby rushing water, “Why thank you!”

The same mix of politeness and professionalism greets Seable in the sewing room. There’s a radio playing music in the corner and Seable admits to the inmate working there he saw him dancing to it on the security camera. They both laugh. The inmate eagerly presents his latest work: a bag to carry equipment. He didn’t know how to make it at first, so took apart an existing one and reverse-engineered it.

The instruction, leadership and structure inmates at South Fork get is often something they did not grow up with. Seable says for many of the inmates, it’s the first time in their lives someone has told them “good job.” For former inmate Joseph, this kind of encouragement is what made him realize he had the potential to turn his work at South Fork into a career. A manager from a nearby Tillamook hatchery would often work with South Fork’s hatchery inmates. He admired Joseph’s work ethic and told him it was something he could pursue when he got out. “That conversation gave me hope,” says Joseph. “It gave me ambition and drive and something to work for.”

Despite some success, an inmate workforce does come with drawbacks. Seable estimates about 60 percent of South Fork inmates take pride in their work. The rest he says are just doing what they need to do to get out, while about five percent cause trouble.

Seable says some of the toughest things to deal with at South Fork are the lingering addictions and habits of the inmates, and the manipulation they resort to in attempts to satisfy them. South Fork employees and the crew bosses have to constantly watch for inmates trying to distract them, get out of sight or sneak contraband onto a vehicle. “They will constantly try to manipulate and that takes some emotional fortitude to deal with,” says Seable.

Outside of camp, South Fork inmates have a well-known reputation for their work on forest fires. Seable says his father, a fire warden in McMinnville in the 1950s, used to request South Fork crews when he had a fire in his district. Seable remembers his father saying that watching the inmates build fire line “was like watching artists at work.”

Upholding that reputation and tradition is something Seable and his team try to instill in their inmates. “They’re not here just to sweat and be made to work,” says Seable. “They’re part of something much bigger. And the more they buy into that, the better their experience is here.”

On one of the first warm spring days, inmates take a break from fire school and spread out across South Fork’s softball field to eat lunch. Crew bosses chat on the side, leaning against their trucks. They lead groups of inmates throughout the year and play one of the most important roles at camp. “A lot of these [inmates] maybe didn’t grow up in a structured home, maybe didn’t have a dad,” says Seable, “So they come here and their crew boss becomes the first father figure in their life.”

Brad Middaugh spent 24 years as an inmate crew boss and retired in October 2014. Middaugh remembers his first day on the job in 1990, back before there was any training on how to work with inmates. His crew wasted no time making it clear they didn’t like him, told him he was going to hell and threatened to “cut him up.” His third day on the job while they were working with tools, one inmate kept his word and chased him down, swinging a hatchet in Middaugh’s direction. The fourth day, Middaugh laid down the law with some choice words. To be a successful crew boss, he says, you have to know how to say no, and need to prove you know what you’re doing in order to gain respect and cooperation from the inmates.

Working closely with inmates on a crew can also take an emotional toll, and Middaugh remembers coming home many days frustrated and mad. He knows the money inmate labor saves the state looks great on paper, but thinks the issues the crew bosses deal with often go overlooked. “People don’t hear about all the anguish and disrespect,” he says. “These foremen, a lot of them don’t make it.”

Ciel Downing, South Fork’s inmate counselor, acknowledges the awkward relationship crew bosses are put into and the difficulties that come with it. She says in most crew situations, the people you work with are your colleagues. But at South Fork, there’s an added dimension of criminal history and the vigilance required of the crew bosses to account for that. “It’s easy to feel like you have personally failed because someone has betrayed you or brought contraband onto your vehicle,” she says.

Despite difficulties, Middaugh says when you can get inmates from all different walks of life to bond as a team, fight fire and save lives, “it’s pretty amazing…the best feeling in the world.”

During the summer months, the firefighting mission at South Fork is a special point of pride. “They look at themselves as firemen and they are firemen,” says Middaugh. During other times in the year—planting tree seedlings in a cold February rain, for instance—if an inmate bruises a knee while working in the woods, they might use it as an excuse to go back to camp. But Middaugh says during fire season, they won’t say anything because they love the work so much.

South Fork’s fire school certifies inmates as entry-level firefighters, a qualification they can use to pursue work in firefighting after they get out. Seable says there’s a lot of buzz around fire season for the inmates, who love the chance to travel, see fire, and work with regular people. Fire season also means fire camp, and fire camp means eating a firefighter’s diet, which includes things like steak, something the Department of Corrections does not include in its prison food budget—“It’s a huge excitement factor for them.”

Former crew boss Middaugh says one of the keys to an excellent inmate crew is to treat them like men, not convicts. He says often inmates see themselves as second-class citizens because that’s what they’ve been told: that they’re tax burdens, bad people, always unable to shake the label of being a criminal. He recalls one situation on a fire when his team dismissed being treated unfairly because of their status as inmates. “It’s OK, boss, that’s who we are,” they said. Middaugh told them to knock it off. He acknowledges that they’re not perfect—that’s why they’ve committed crimes—but says when they’re out on a fire, they’re a team and they’re firemen, so he stands up for them. His team mantra for his inmates: “You go, we go.”

 He wants them to see that if you do the right thing and work hard, you’ll be taken care of. “That’s something they don’t see happen in prison,” he says. “It changed the crew and it changed the camp.”

Back at camp, Seable walks up a hill behind a main building for a better view: the assortment of low structures, workshops, a vegetable garden and fish hatchery etched into the space between timberlines. Joseph spent the first 18 months of his sentence at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Oregon. He says at South Fork, the absence of concrete walls and prison drama made his experience a lot less threatening—the forest setting allowing him to “find a lot of peace in myself.”

Downing, the counselor at South Fork, says the camp’s environment is an ideal place to help an inmate turn his life around. “I truly believe that being outdoors and spending energy on productivity and creativity has got nowhere to go but releasing all the best mind and body chemicals available to man,” she says.

Seable compares other high-security prisons he’s worked in to pressure cookers. “There were all these younger inmates and offenders full of negative energy,” he says. “It started to feel like you were actually in prison yourself as an employee there. South Fork is just totally different.”

Downing recently took a bunch of photos of the inmates building bridges and training for fires, and when they heard about them, she says she had about 60 guys ask if the photos will be put somewhere where their families could see them. Seable says often South Fork crews will be working at a campground and be approached by a former inmate who’s returned with his family to show them the campground, trail or trees he worked with. “There’s a great pride in what they’ve done and they can show their families, ‘Yeah, I messed up. I was incarcerated. But while I was down, I didn’t waste my time.’”

Of South Fork, Downing says, “something like this is way beyond invaluable, it’s a game changer.”

As they prepare to leave South Fork, inmates are offered resume-writing classes, job fairs, and help with college applications or financial aid forms. Seable even says on a few occasions, while working on fires, inmates have had the opportunity to connect with a contract firefighting company that sees their good work and offers to hire them once they get out.

Being incarcerated doesn’t have to be all concrete and bars and pacing in circles. Inmates at South Fork are doing good work while getting better. Seable notes that a lot of the inmates have little interest in working in the natural resource industry after they leave, but that they can take South Fork’s skills and life lessons with them no matter what they do in life.

South Fork has taught him that there are few human beings beyond the possibility of earning some respect. Inmates at South Fork have done some great damage, and being removed from society is their punishment. But for those open to it, South Fork can also be a beginning. “I’ve become more interested and supportive of the idea that human beings are not thrown away,” says Seable. “When they go to prison you don’t just lock them up—out of sight out of mind and then all is well. They’re still there, they have families and friends too.”

Seable says he has become a big supporter of programs that can help rehabilitate inmates. He notes that 80 percent of inmates in Oregon are going to get out at some point. They are going to be the person standing behind you at the grocery store, your neighbor or the guy saving your home from wildfire. They’re not throwaways. 

Despite its look, South Fork is not the summer camp you want to loyally return to each summer. Seable hopes that because of their experience there, when inmates leave the system, they never come back.


Layout adapted from a photo by Loren Kerns, used with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Thumbnail photo by Andrea Booher, public domain.