North Carolina Department of Correction News - September 1999

Blanch Correctional Institution closes its gates for good

Blanch — A tobacco field, a gray-bearded Amish bicyclist, a one lane bridge, huge numbers of wild turkeys, signs alerting drivers to horse-drawn vehicles, fresh eggs and organic vegetables, and mailboxes supporting religious quotes, such as "God is our refuge", and "The wicked will not seek after God." These have been familiar sights to employees who have driven the rural High Rock School Road each day, most for their entire careers, to work at Blanch Correctional Institution. That all changed with the Aug. 31 closing of the prison.

One of seven prisons the state legislature approved to close, 92 employees had to take new jobs as the prison once known as Ivy Bluff and the location of the famous Yank Stewart prison escape in 1959 prepared to close its gates for good.

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Staff watch as some of the last inmates leave the prison.

Over the past year, since discovering the prison was projected to close, many other employees chose to leave their job at Blanch to avoid being placed too far from home.Superintendent J Haynes said, "It’s hard to tell a person who has worked here all his career, you’ve got to go somewhere else to work."

Bernard Jeffreys, from Milton, decided to retire after working 30 years. "I didn’t have any idea I’d be with the Department this long," Jeffreys said. "There have been a lot of changes, some good, some not in the best interest of the prison."

Jeffreys was one of five custody staff assigned to the Blanch Metal Plant which is operated by Correction Enterprise. It will continue to operate, busing inmates from neighboring Caswell Correctional Center and the Dan River Prison Work Farm.

Blanch Correctional Institution shut down slowly. Preparations began months earlier, mostly pushed along by a quickly decreasing staff. First, one, then another cellblock was closed due to insufficient staff to operate the entire facility. The Dan River Prison Work Farm and Caswell Correctional Center and Albemarle Correctional Institution provided correctional staff to relieve the overworked Blanch staff. On Aug. 9 and 10, the remaining intensive control inmates were transferred to Warren Correctional Institution.

Haynes said that personnel did all they could to help staff find positions, freezing jobs in the Piedmont Area and Polk Youth Institution until his employees were placed. Even though everyone did not get a position that was his or her first choice, all but two staff were offered positions. Seven employees chose to retire.

"We got so short of staff we first borrowed 12 employees from the Dan River Work Farm, then from the new Albemarle Correctional Institution," Haynes said. "All of the employees put in a lot of overtime."

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Officer Larry Walker will be leaving behind his Monday through Friday clothes house job.
A six-year veteran of Blanch, Correctional Officer Larry Walker is leaving behind his Monday through Friday clothes house job, possibly going back to a shift at Caswell Correctional Center. "I like the people (at Blanch)," Walker said. "I learned everything here, and now I will have to learn everything all over again at Caswell."

Walker, a small-framed young man, has been involved in a number of use-of-force incidents at Blanch.

"We were told for so long we were working with the worst of the worst (with youth)," Walker said. Then the prison was converted to adults and, "We got the worst of the worst with adults," referring to a large number of inmates sent to maximum control and high security maximum control.

"My first two weeks, I thought I made the worst mistake I’d ever made in my life," Walker said. "But it eventually grew on you."

After more than 25 years at Blanch, Lt. David Leonard hoped to retire there. He, too was being transferred to the Caswell prison.

I’m not sad to leave the unit, but to leave the people," Leonard said "The unit is so small, we got to know everybody, personal life as well as professional, like one big family. Now I have to get to know a whole new group of people."

But Leonard considers himself lucky. "I’ve had my (lieutenant) bars since 1988, and I was worried I’d have to take a demotion."

Staff at Blanch used to gather two or three times a year, sometimes with family, for cookouts. Despite the solemnity of the day when DOC personnel came to give future assignments, a cookout was held at the facility, and staff, families managers, and even DOC personnel attended. One final get-together was planned during the final week that staff would be together before going their separate ways to locations such as Polk, Caswell, Dan River, and other Piedmont prisons."

Haynes was asked where he was being assigned. After replying that he had not been given an assignment, he shrugged it off saying, "The main thing was getting my people in place. I’m not worried." u

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After 25 years at Blanch, Lt. David Leonard will transfer to Caswell.

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