JANUARY 30, 1996

GATESVILLE - Canoeists paddling around Merchant Millpond State Park are likely to see majestic cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, hundreds of turtles sunning on logs and a group of state prisoners toting lumber.

Foot bridges were needed in 18 spots on the park's 10 miles of hiking trails, so part officials called Gates Correctional Center for help. Up to 14 inmates transport lumber over land or in narrow, flat-bottom boats to the bridge sites. Then the inmates construct the bridges, a strenuous job, according to Gates Superintendent Steve Muller since power tools are useless out in the wild.

Inmates are currently building a 25-foot span over a marshy area and they have 15 bridges to build. Park officials are pleased with the work.

"This is like having a magic wand and being able to wave it and get all the work done. The amount of work was monumental and if the small staff here had to do it, by the time we finished the last bridge, it would be time to start over," said Park Ranger Floyd Williams who directs the Gates crew.

Williams said the quality of work the inmates are providing is excellent. They have also helped the park by c leaning and staining the four main park buildings and are beginning to cut a right-of-way around the 25-mile park boundary.

Gates Correctional Center's community work crew covers eight counties. Last week they were clearing tires in Chowan County from one of the largest dump sites in the state. Next month they will be painting a building at the Town of Winton's wastewater treatment plant.

Correction Secretary Franklin Freeman said the jobs that the Gates Correctional Center inmates are tackling are just the sort Governor Hunt had in mind when he pushed to expand the Division of Prisons' Community Work Program a year ago.

"Keeping inmates productive while saving government agencies vital tax dollars is a win-win situation for everyone," Freeman said. "The statewide community work program saved public agencies $3 million last year. It is indeed a successful program."