North Carolina Department of Correction

Western Youth Institution - 25 Years of Service

Comments from Retired Staff

Dr James White Bob Smith Donald Gupton and Harry Pinkerton

Dr James White
(Western Correctional Center superintendent 1969-1972)

Opening the prison
The original building was built around an isolation custody theme without much regard to programming that went on within that. In order to fit that to some reasonable correctional program we had to go by floors.

The first open floor for inmates was 14. The sixteenth floor was maximum security. The fifteenth was the hospital and the school. You come down to about 14 before you start getting run-of-the-mill inmates. There we made a different environment on each floor.

You couldn't penalize people with the food content. Some things are condiments you can sacrifice, but some things aren't. You can very well leave off pepper, but not salt. Lettuce can be crisp in the refrigerator or wilted on the salad bar. What we did was make an improved environment and used more finesse in the way we served food from 14 to 13 and 13 to 12 and on like that. So that down on the lower floors, it was served pretty well. We had a whole little book made up of privileges the inmates wanted and we set up how they could earn them.

On the contingency management program
It depends on what you want to reinforce. And the most meaningful way to do this is to make sure that you and the inmate together set goals of behaviors you want to change and then you reinforce the individual as he approximates the completion of those goals. You can shape a fellow without the man being conscious of what he's doing. In college we did this all the time. The class would meet early and decide to shape the professor to spend more time at the blackboard and less time at the lectern. So we simply would differently respond to him in those two conditions. If he came to the lectern, we would yawn and do a lot of looking away and leaf through the textbook. If he went to the blackboard, people would cup their chins, elbows on the desk looking at him, taking notes, eyeball didn't take long to shape him into spending more time at lectern. That same principle is true in shaping inmate behavior.

On working with youthful offenders
You can structure a youth's environment and pile enough things on him so that you can control how he's going to rebel. And if you give him enough innocuous things, he didn't really get into trouble and you can play this reinforcement giving him a point or taking two away for misbehavior. Minor things like talking in line. Uh,oh, you're talking in line, you got two demerits. In other words, if you don't provide the person enough innocuous things to avoid, big things may come up. I'd rather have him talking in line and receive a silly punishment, than planning to escape.

On 1973 project where Western Correctional Center inmates were trained by Green Berets
I wrote the commanding general and told him I was in charge of a foreign population that didn't use the right language, didn't have the right clothes and didn't have the right morals and their efforts were wasted in attempting to meet their goals and objectives. And I've got to teach them what they can do, not what's wrong with them. You see children of the poor and the socially deprived most of the time are related to on the basis of needs or difficulty rather than accomplishment. The mother of one of these children doesn't have time to look at his drawing and say, oh that's good, after dinner tonight let me teach you how to draw eyebrows or a face looking from the side or something. But children of the needy and deprived, these mothers relate to their children based on real need, acute need-- their truant, their vomiting, their fighting....their doing something that warrants an immediate involvement, so that you teach the child that if you want a piece of momma's time, you get a problem.

My system trained the staff harder and harder to get involved with them based on goals that you want them to acquire.

Everything was set up to allow them to be shaped in small increments into accomplishing the end product. How do you teach a kid that has never been out in the woods with two lengths of rope to climb straight up a cliff? There are ways of going about that. You teach it to them in small enough increments that they master it before they go on to the next one. You climb up and down that cliff, that's something to write home about. That's an accomplishment.

So they(the Green Berets) came in there, they were sleeping in the same areas with the inmates. They would make up their beds so that you could bounce a quarter. Then the inmates wanted to do that. After 3-4 days, the inmates were trying to send out for contraband shoe polish. They wanted to shine their shoes to look like the Green Beret boots and so I bought them all the shoe polish they wanted...all they had to do was ask for it and then they had to put it on their shoes. I didn't set standards for them requiring them to make their bunk this tight and by the end of the week I want it this tight. Everything was done by imitation. They went right for that. As long as it was something they could understand, something that was accomplishable, something that those guys could teach them how to do. We took the inmate that had made the greatest progress with the problems the day before and made him an acting lieutenant. He was the boss. He got to be boss by positive accomplishment, not by who he knew or something. Pretty soon, those kids were writing home about being to able to run five miles a day, something they never thought they could do.

On staff training program
This was probably one of the neatest things we did. MDTA, the Manpower Development Training Act, allowed you to get grant money and funnel it through a teaching institution like a community college to organize training programs for positions that are new or upgraded. They won't let you get money like that to fill the same old jobs, like at a shoe factory where you had a lot of people leave. You couldn't use that kind of training money to go back in and fill those empty positions. Say you had the collapse of a certain kind of industry and you were going to go into something entirely different. The two things I was involved in back there were Western Carolina Center and Western Correctional Center. Both had hundreds of positions that had never been filed before. We got MDTA monies and channeled it through the community college and built an elaborate training program. The interesting thing about this, after collecting all this money and training these people, you're not required to hire them. You only have to give them a reasonable chance of employment. Of course, we hired most of ours. That provided our base staff. Then we got a reputation and we had people find us. We had pretty decent applicants for jobs.

Back to the top

Bob Smith
(Assistant superintendent for programs, 1976-1996)

I came to work for the department in 1971 and came to work here in 1972. Construction was completed in December of 1971 and we came in shortly after and started setting up the programs. We got our first inmates around the first of May. We had some earlier than that, but they were paint crews and work crews and not our regular residents. the first group was transferred here from Polk Youth Center.

Originally we were to receive new admissions that came off the street and gradually fill up and that way allow the staff who were all practically brand new, except for the line staff, to get comfortable with their surroundings and their jobs. Unfortunately it didn't work out that way. Overcrowding and the need for space, especially at Polk, they loaded up a couple of busloads and sent them to us. So we began to fill up fairly quickly after that. We not only got inmates fresh out of the court system, they stocked us with inmates from other institutions, too.

It was a unique experience. We knew this was the only high-rise facility in the southeast at that time. We knew that the operating procedures were going to be so vastly different from what you see in most prisons mainly because of the elevators, having to use the elevators for movement. The staff were very inexperienced. We brought in experienced line officers, but the actual day-to-day employee, program staff, administrative were all new. We looked at it as an exciting adventure and something we had never done before.

The mood in those days was real upbeat. it was new. It was challenging. We had a lot of trouble getting acceptance from the rest of the system, because we had youthful offenders. The standard joke used to be that we needed to join the prison system. but what folks didn't realize at that time that working with youth is probably harder than working with adults. The types of problems that they have requires a special kind of person to work with.

The one thing of working with youthful offenders is that I don't believe if I've been effective in my job that I would have been with adult offenders as I have been with youth. Most of the people who have been employed here and enjoyed longevity were people who enjoyed working with youth and people who got something back from that. I probably gotten much more than I've ever given working with youth. Its been a challenge. The uniqueness of being teenagers sets them apart.

We were different. We did do things differently. We adopted the feeling, so what if we do do things differently.

I was hired as a program assistant. They had just instituted the program series in 1971 and still had not established the ranking of how people would be assigned. I was the first program person for the institution and Mack Jarvis came as the custody major. He was what we would call now the Assistant Superintendent for Custody.

It was a good mixture of some inexperienced and some experienced. Dr. White came out of mental health. I came out of the business world. George Green was retired military. And of course, Mr. Jarvis had all the experience. He set the tone for us and provided guidance and leadership.

Back to the top

Donald Gupton and Harry Pinkerton
(Retired Correctional Officers)

Gupton: I worked here for 28 years and worked at Caledonia for seven years before I came up here.

Pinkerton: I retired with 30 years and I worked here for about 23 and half years. Before that I worked at the McDowell prison unit.

Gupton: I worked at Caledonia when I started back in 1966. It was more like the major was the commander and all the guys behaved pretty well. When we came up here it was a different matter, more or less like a school for a time. Once we filled up the unit, we got more incorrectible types in.

Pinkerton: I felt like the adults were easier to handle than these young people because the adults were set in their ways. They knew what they could get away with. When I came down here it was an entirely different scene. These young boys would push you to the limit. They would push to see how far they could go with you.

Pinkerton: When I came here I was assigned to the receiving floor and I worked with the new inmates coming in. I was here four and a half months and I was promoted to sergeant. I moved down to the control center and worked there for about a year and a half. Then I went to the clotheshouse and ran it for about 20 years.

Pinkerton: Inmates were classified to the upper floors and he worked his way down by behavior. It worked good.

Gupton: I was a little different from other correctional officers because I had the inmate trust fund and canteen. So I was giving them services more or less. They always liked to see me when they were getting their mail or money. Eventually, I got out of that type of work and went back to the floor working as a correctional officer. I never had problems with the guys. they were always well behaved. there were some bad ones and some good ones. They were usually better with me since I had been providing some services they looked forward to.

Pinkerton: I had the opportunity to work with one of the counselors Chris Davis who had a young man to come in that we felt like had been unfairly sentenced and we worked closely with him to keep him out of trouble to give him a chance to get out. That stands out in my memory. I always said that in the 30 years I worked with the Department of Correction, if I could look back and see one young man that I had helped better his life and get out of prison, it would be worth it all. One, hopefully many, but I do know of one.

Gupton: I had one boy when I was working in the canteen. He was in for a murder charge. He had killed his daddy. We worked with him and all the indications were there had been some parent abuse in the deal. Over a length of time, it took three or four years, we finally get his parole because we found out that his daddy was abusing the whole family. It makes you feel good to see where they got the truth in the whole deal.

Western Youth Institution

NC DOC Homepage
NC DOP Homepage
Email NC DOC