North Carolina Department of Correction - Correction News - January 1999

Five small prisons close in December

By mid-december, Superintendent Derrick Wadsworth
and a few staff members were the only ones left at
Martin Correctional Center.
Construction is nearing completion on the new
Avery-Mitchell correctional institution. The new prison
will combine staff and inmates from Avery, Watauga
and Yancey correctional centers.

Shirley Bullard packs up records
in preparation for the closing of
Martin Correctional Center.

Inmates from Gates Correctional
Center help move equipment
out of Martin.

Former staff members at five small prisons which closed in December, are beginning the new year adjusting to new facilities with new faces, new personalities and new routines.

Some left behind jobs they have held for 20 years or more and friends that had become more like family. Some are having to spend more time on the road traveling to units in neighboring towns. And some are having to learn new skills and procedures, all the while adjusting to working at a facility with hundreds of inmates instead of just 50 or 60.

The five prisons, Alexander, Martin, Mecklenburg, Sandy Ridge and Watauga correctional centers, were recommended for closing by a 1991 government audit committee which said the 1930-era prisons were inefficient to operate because of their small size. The General Assembly passed the budget closing Alexander, Martin, Mecklenburg and Sandy Ridge at the end of October.

Watauga closed in preparation for the opening of the new Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution which will open this spring and combine the staff and inmates from Watauga, Avery and Yancey correctional centers. Avery and Yancey are remaining open, for now, on a temporary basis.

Staff at the prisons began the difficult task of shutting down the units at the end of October.

Boyd Bennett, director of the Piedmont Region, said the first step in closing the prisons was to get the inmate population down. The units quit accepting new inmates and then began transferring the population to other units. By mid-December, all the inmates had been moved to their new locations.

While inmates were being transferred, staff met with personnel to be reassigned to positions at other units.

"The whole process went real well," said Dan Stieneke, director of prisons. "All of the staff at the five prisons were offered new positions. Some may require more travel, but we tried to work with them to offer them other positions as close as possible to where they were location-wise and position-wise."

Derrick Wadsworth, superintendent at Martin Correctional Center, said he was impressed by the efforts made by the personnel staff to work with his employees in finding new positions.

"Personnel did a great job," he said. "Hats off to Nancy Wilder and her crew. Now everyone here has a job, and the staff didn’t have to go through the holidays wondering what was going to happen to them. Now everyone knows where they are going."

Skeleton crews remained at each of the five prisons through the end of December cleaning up the units, sorting through records, accounting for inventory and making sure all the equipment was sent to the appropriate locations.

While staff at other units were gathering together to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, staff at these five prisons gathered to say good-bye. Officials at Sandy Ridge organized a retirement party for the prison and invited back former staff members.

"This has been really stressful on the staff, but I think having the retirement celebration helped some," said Wallace Shields, superintendent of Sandy Ridge.

Staff at Mecklenburg had a pizza party and those at Martin said their good-byes during a staff luncheon in early December. Fred Watkins, superintendent at Alexander, said he had wanted to plan a farewell celebration, but, at first, his staff told him they wouldn’t come. Staff later changed their minds and had a gathering right before Christmas.

"The staff said it would just be too sad," he said. "The staff here, for the most part, are long-time employees, so this hurts a lot. It’s really hard on them because most will be going from a small unit to a major institution. I had five sergeants with close to 20 years service each that are leaving out of here as officers. They aren’t losing any money, but it just tears your heart out."

Keith Johnston, acting superintendent at Watauga said even though his staff knew that the prison would eventually close, it was still hard to deal with once the time came to say good-bye.

"Almost all our staff live here in Watauga, and they don’t like the idea of having to move or drive a long way to work," he said. "Some folks are upbeat because they’re getting promotions, but overall spirits are pretty low right now."

Jerry Moore, former superintendent of Mecklenburg, said closing the prison was rough on his staff, too. He said part of the problem was that everyone was not able to be reassigned to their first choice. However, he said he thinks everyone has accepted the situation now, and it will all work out in the end.

"I think if people are patient, they’ll be able to settle in just fine in their new positions," he said.

Joe Picklesimer, superintendent at Piedmont Correctional Institution agrees. He received 12 to 13 officers from Mecklenburg and said he was thrilled to have seasoned professionals added to his staff.

"We're appreciative to get these men," he said. "We've had job fairs and sought employees to fill the prison's vacancies. Many of the officers from Mecklenburg lived on this side of the county and will only have a 15 to 20 minute drive here."

Although the reassigned employees will soon be settling in at their new units, making new friends and developing new routines, Wadsworth said the staff at Martin plans to keep in touch.

"We had developed quite a working family here that will be missed," he said. "So we decided to establish a 4145 club, and every Dec. 7, we will all get back together in Williamston and have lunch or dinner together. This just shows the kind of togetherness that formed here over the years." u

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