North Carolina Department of Correction news release

NOVEMBER 16, 1998

State Inmates Help Make Park More Accessible

KINGS MOUNTAIN — Standing atop the highest peak in Gaston County, visitors to Crowders Mountain State Park are awed by captivating views that stretch for more than 20 miles. Raptors soar gracefully in the wind currents, trees stretch into the horizon and sheer vertical cliffs drop 150 feet.

While such views often amaze the thousands of visitors to Crowders Mountain who are fit enough to make the steep and often rugged hike to the top, there are thousands more who might never get the opportunity to enjoy such views if it wasn’t for the help of inmates from Gaston Correctional Center.

Since January 1996, Gaston inmates have been working with park staff on several projects intended to improve the park’s accessibility. The inmates are part of the Governor’s Community Work Program. Under the supervision of a correctional officer, the inmates work in groups of 10, performing short term, manual labor jobs for public agencies.

At Crowders Mountain State Park, the inmates recently helped park staff redo the Backside Trail, making it easier for visitors in less than peak shape reach the mountain’s top, and they are currently building a wheelchair-accessible path to and around the park’s nine-acre lake.

"The inmates have really helped us out a lot," said Park Superintendent Joe Sox. "The park has a staff of six people, and it operates seven days a week, so it’s hard to put together much of a labor crew. By using the inmate work crews, we have been able to complete several projects that, without them, would have taken us years longer to complete and would have cost the state a lot more money."

Estimated to take 10 years, the Backside Trail project was completed in a mere year and a half using inmate labor, and since the inmates work for free, they saved the state $150,000 on that one project alone.

Prior to the renovation, the trail was a rugged path winding its way over rocks and through trees, making it difficult for some visitors to reach the top. With help from the park staff, the inmates cleared the area, graded it off and transformed the path it into a gravel trail. At the end of the trail closest to the mountain’s peak, the inmates installed 334 steps by hand to help visitors travel over the mountain’s more treacherous terrain.

"The steps have really opened up access to the top of the mountain for older folks and children," Sox said. "It’s real rewarding to see people up at the top of the mountain who, before, could have never made it to the top."

Once the trail was completed, the inmates shifted their focus from the park’s mountains to the lake where they recently built a wheelchair-accessible path connecting the parking lot and the lake. The path will allow visitors in wheelchairs and others who have difficulty walking to easily travel from their vehicles to a wheelchair-accessible pier constructed by the N.C. Wildlife Commission.

Having completed the main pathway to the lake, the inmates are now busy constructing a wheelchair-accessible path that will eventually circle the entire lake.

"Because of the terrain, much of the park is inaccessible to people in wheelchairs," Sox said. "To be able to make parts of it accessible, is really exciting."

When the inmates are not busy working on a major project for the park, they often help park staff with routine trail maintenance such as trail resurfacing and erosion control.

"Ninety-eight percent of the response we’ve gotten from the public to see inmates working in the park has been positive," Sox said. "They are glad to see that prisoners are out there working."

More than 21,000 of the state’s 32,000 inmates work while they are in prison. Gaston Correctional Center has three community work squads, and Assistant Superintendent Allen Long said he tries to keep one crew busy working at the park as much as possible without neglecting other agencies. Since January 1996, inmates from Gaston have spent more than 150 days working at Crowders Mountain State Park.


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