AUGUST 15, 1995

MT. MITCHELL - For the next two months, prisoners are working atop Mt. Mitchell, painting maintenance sheds, removing fallen trees along trails, replacing guard rails and trimming areas around the park's boundary lines.

Five inmates from Blue Ridge Youth Center spent one mid-August week painting a maintenance garage and several other state park buildings on the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River. Several said they had never been to the mountains before coming to prison.

"I'd rather be free than doing this work," said Chris Gorth of Charlotte. "It's different, it's secluded from the civilization I'm used to."

"You can see Charlotte from here," another inmate adds.

The inmates are supervised by N.C. Forestry Service. Project leader, Russell Harris, said oftentimes inmates literally don't know which end of a shovel to use.

"There are a rare few who know what to do, but with most, we have to put a hand right there with them and tell them exactly what to do," Harris said. "Painting is one of the real hard jobs to teach, and when they do learn how, it is a real confidence builder."

Between strokes of paint, the inmates agreed that firefighting is the most exciting work they do.

"Most of the stuff I'm doing, I didn't know I could do," inmate Tracy Williams of Hickory said. "I never thought I'd be doing it either."

Last year, the N.C. Forestry Service, with help from the Blue Ridge inmates put out 50 fires in 17 western counties. Mt. Mitchell itself hasn't had a fire in 60 years, but in the spring, there was a small fire on a nearby ridge.

"I don't know what the Forestry Service would do without this extra help," Harris said. "We have come to depend on and trust the inmates like any other worker."

Thirteen prison work crews from both Blue Ridge Youth Center and Western Youth Institution are working at two other state parks this summer, building trails, chipping limbs for mulch, and doing ground and building maintenance work. At South Mountain State Park, inmates built a handicapped trail and at Lake James State Park, inmates built fences. Near Mt. Mitchell, inmate workers restored the old, abandoned Green Knob fire tower.

The work season atop the 6,684-foot tall Mt. Mitchell is limited to the end of Oct. or mid-Nov. due to the winter weather. By then, inmates will have replaced a wooden guard rail at the park's restaurant parking lot, trimmed bushes, put up signs so hunters can locate property lines, cleaned up debris along roadsides and removed logs from park trails.

"When properly trained, inmates like the ones at Mt. Mitchell perform a valuable service to the state, doing labor-intensive jobs that save taxpayer dollars," said Correction Secretary Franklin Freeman. "Any time inmates better themselves through learning basic job skills, the less likely they are to return to prison."