Fighting For A Second Chance

Holden Smith finds a way to make amends by fighting fires while serving the rest of his prison sentence.

Carly Bramhall

Ontario, Oregon is quite cold in the winter. The young girl realized this while she shivered in front of Snake River Correctional Institution. As the clock struck 8:00 a.m., the crowd finally entered the somber building. Metal doors slammed and radios went off as she lined up to walk through the metal detector. 

“You aren’t coming in here like that,” said the officer as she approached the front of the line in her favorite dress. 

She looked around to see who he might be talking to and finally realized. Her mother pulled her out of line to walk back up the steep hill to the car. They had been here before, and knew now to always pack extra clothes. As they walked back in they could see the shaky hands and anxious glances, nerves bouncing around the bland room.

Finally, they made it through the metal detectors. It had been months since she had seen her cousin and looked forward to giving him a big hug. As another set of metal doors slammed open they saw the room of empty tables, and looked for their spot. Groups of inmates walked in as families frantically searched for their person. As the young girl’s cousin walked out, she ran up to him with that funny 5-year-old run. 

For the next two hours they filled him in on all the family drama as she fidgeted in her seat. The best part of the visit: going to the vending machine. No inmates were allowed to go to the vending machines, but she always picked out his favorite, a cheese and beef stick. She was surrounded by murderers, rapists, robbers, and drug dealers, but she was more concerned about who was going to win Uno. 

Every minute felt like 20. Yet, it was never enough time. A voice echoed across the room signaling that it was time to say goodbye. Tears streamed from her face. She gave him a bigger hug than the first. The family and her cousin walked in opposite directions. She blew kisses and made hearts with her hands. They walked back through the slamming metal doors and up the hill to the car to begin their drive through onion fields and small towns to get back home. 

Holden Smith was sentenced to 12 years in prison for armed robbery. Prior to his conviction, he seemingly succeeded at everything he did—he was funny, witty, and a star athlete. Growing up in the small coastal community of North Bend, he stopped going to school and started doing drugs. As a teenager, Smith started down an unforgiving path of substance abuse and addiction. That’s when it got dark, really dark, for everyone involved.

Smith found himself in his first treatment center at the age of 16, then again at 18, and finally right before his 21st birthday. Serenity Lane warned his family that he would have a hard time staying clean due to his age and the fact that the social pull of drugs proved too appealing. His family only allowed him to stay with them if he remained clean, so he resorted to couch hopping. Then on March 2, 2009, and again on March 26, he robbed Siuslaw Bank with two accomplices. The police eventually located them at the Timber Inn. 

A Lane County grand jury indicted the trio on 17 charges, including ten counts of second-degree robbery with a firearm, five counts of second-degree robbery, one count of first-degree theft, and one count of aggravated first-degree theft with a firearm. At just 21 years old, Smith was sent across the state to Snake River Correctional Institute, and later transferred to Shutter Creek Correctional Institute.

With four years left in his sentence, Smith became eligible to become an inmate firefighter, and he jumped at the opportunity. Smith says, “I did it because I wanted to give back to the community. I wanted to be out in the woods and do something that was a lot different than what I had been doing for the last eight years prior, where I was in an institution 24/7 and the only time I ever got to go outside was to a concrete yard.” 

For the first time in years, Smith was given a purpose and a leadership role. He was elected squad boss for the Shutter Creek inmate fire crew which was a part of the Coos Forest Protection Association. Smith felt rewarded. He wasn’t just defending land for the state, he was protecting people’s homes, livestock, and livelihood.

In 2021 alone, wildfires scorched 826,217 acres of Oregon land, destroying 174 buildings. The wildfires across the Pacific Northwest have become increasingly more serious, massive, and destructive. Fair or not, the severity of this issue has proved to be a turning point for many men like Smith. Raging fires have created opportunities for inmates to reintegrate into the community before their release dates. 

Firefighters are in high demand, and inmates are the perfect hire. The fire companies get paid, the correctional officers on site get paid, the prisons get paid, but the inmates doing the work don’t get paid much. In Oregon, inmates don’t get days off, no matter how many hours they work. Oregon inmates have been sent out to fires since 1953 as a rehabilitation opportunity. Smith and his crew mates were only paid $3 a day. Smith says, “I would make $3 in a few minutes on the streets.”

These programs are often praised because they can be an incredible opportunity for inmates to work outside and connect with people in the field, creating potential job offers upon release. But there is one major problem: two out of three people released from prison in the United States will go on to be repeat offenders, and over half of those will end up in prison again. The chaos and unruly nature of fires allowed Smith to find stability in a world that was otherwise daunting.

Smith has taken his experience and training from fighting fires as an inmate and made a career out of it, working on fires that pay $1,000 a day or more. While he was fighting fires as an inmate he made connections and positive impressions that helped him get a job. Since being released, Smith has earned many certifications and has started his own tree falling business. He now travels the Pacific Northwest fighting fires and falling trees. 


Ever since my cousin was incarcerated, I promised to pick him up on his release. 

The only concept of 12 years into the future for me was that I would be able to drive. In my head it was always going to be a purple truck, but my blue Kia Optima did the job. 

The night before, I sat with my mom and aunt all night, anxiously talking about those past 12 years, anticipating the future and the unknown. The next morning, I picked out my favorite sweater for the occasion.

As I approached the slamming gate, an officer instructed me to park the car. Suddenly, there he was. No metal detectors or officers, just him. I ran up and gave him the biggest hug. It felt wild to be sitting in a car with him. We talked for a while, but then we just sat. 

I felt anxious for him to see the rest of the family, to go to a store, to go anywhere that wasn’t a cement cell. It was overwhelming to watch him take in so much all at once. As Covid would have it, we all met at a park. I was so excited for everyone to see him step out of the car as a free man. We were all crying and laughing, trying to comprehend the fact that he was standing in front of us. 

I was scared for him. With just one small mistake, he could end up back in prison, or engulfed in flames. It was hard to focus on his release when I knew that we could lose him again. 

I grew up without someone I loved. I had to call when I started riding my bike without training wheels, and then again when I started driving. All people are flawed, including my cousin, but the prison system doesn’t exactly prepare inmates to reenter the world. Spending 12 years aging inside a cell, Smith was not prepared for anything that would hit him in the real world, a place he no longer recognized. He didn’t know how to work a phone or a Macbook, and he struggled to keep up with the many relationships he had been deprived of during incarceration. Nowadays most everyone communicates on social media, something he did not have to deal with for 12 years. It is true that Smith has created a family and a career, but that is not because of his time in prison, rather in spite of it. 

All of the suffering my family went through during this process would be worth it if we could be a part of his life again, and be a whole family once more. I know now that even the people we idolize aren’t perfect. But every phone call from prison, every letter, and every visit felt perfect to me. Looking back now on all the letters I saved, and all the blurry holiday pictures we have in front of a cheesy background in the visiting room, I can remind myself that all of the memories don’t mean any less because of where they were made. I don’t want to be inside of a prison ever again, but I don’t resent that I had to learn that lesson.