Blog: DPS Dispatch

The vaccines have been a game-changer It’s been a year since the pandemic first hit our state prison system. We’ve endured an awful year of heartbreak, surprises, adaptation, perseverance and the most logistically complicated mass-vaccination initiative since the polio vaccine was rolled out in the 1950s. The hard work is paying off. The vaccines are making a huge difference. They are working.

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Every year, thousands of people complete their sentences in one of North Carolina’s correctional institutions and return to their community.  Preparing offenders for their return home is a nine-month process. Case managers review the home plan with the offender to ensure they will have a stable place to live, they help the offender get new identification and documents they may need and help the offender connect with resources for employment, transportation and other assistance.

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The ongoing pandemic temporarily halted in-person educational programs in every state prison due to restrictions placed on outside visitation by instructors, as well as community colleges stopping classes. But it did not stop the N.C. Field Minister Program from moving forward into its fourth year at Nash Correctional Institution.

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The Division of Prisons works tirelessly to train offenders for life back in the community. Educational and job training opportunities abound in the state’s 50-plus facilities through Correction Enterprises and other avenues, but the majority of those opportunities benefit male offenders. Thanks to its continuing partnership with The College at Southeastern in Wake Forest, a program geared toward female offenders is now in place at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.

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Updated 3-3-2021: Requirements for the ELC program were recently ammended. Offenders with projected release dates in 2021 will be reviewed for possible participation in ELC. A review does not guarantee participation. Navigating the uncharted waters of a modern-day pandemic has been difficult and challenging for everyone, particularly for people working and living in congregate housing settings. That’s one reason DPS is using existing provisions in state law to reduce the prison population to help reduce the spread of the virus.

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Jerlene Epley, one of hundreds of employees who worked at Western Youth Institution during its 41 years of operation, saw it built from the ground-up. On Saturday, June 11, she will see the “High Rise” fall back to the earth. The 89-year-old Epley, one of the first female employees hired when the Morganton prison opened in 1972, will be on-site this weekend when the former 16-story facility is imploded to make room for a regional N.C. National Guard training center.  Staff of the Western Youth Institution during the facility's early years (above) and the building earlier this year.

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Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, offenders in North Carolina prisons who needed specialty visits to outside medical centers for treatment of physical ailments could spend an entire day traveling across the state to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, transported by correctional officers. That could provide security challenges depending on the facility’s vacancy rate. During this pandemic, transportation outside of a facility also brings the potential for COVID-19 infection.

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Ground was broken on the imposing stone fortress known as Central Prison in Raleigh 150 years ago as convicts wielded shovels and chipped granite blocks from a nearby quarry to build its 30-foot walls. It took 14 years to finish the job started on Jan. 6, 1870. Central Prison has been in continuous service since it opened in 1884. The project cost $1.25 million. Much has changed since those simpler, harsher times.

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Former warden Dennis Daniels looks back with a sense of pride and accomplishment on his nearly 40 years of service in the only fulltime work environment he ever knew.  Daniels, 61, who retired in November, said, “This is a tough job to walk away from, especially when this is what you’ve done every day of your working life. It’s in your bones. There’s something in those of us in corrections that want to get up and go to prison. I’ve been told ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with your head?’ But it’s all I’ve ever done.”

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Members of the Prisons’ Special Operations Response Team, along with a member from the Prisons’ Special Operations Target Interdiction Team (Snipers), placed third overall in the 2019 North Carolina Tactical Officer’s Association 26th annual SWAT Competition at the NC Justice Academy in Salemburg last month.

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Two North Carolina prisons’ food service personnel were honored recently by the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates’ Annual International Conference Vendor Showcase in Memphis. Central Prison Correctional Food Service Manager Conell Chapman was presented with the 2019 ACFSA Operator of the Year Award, while Maury Correctional Institution Food Service Manager Clarence Godley received the ACFSA Heroism Award for his actions during Hurricane Florence.

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D.J. Loftis could not hold back her tears as she said thank you to a team of people for training her family’s service dog, Apollo. Apollo is a recent graduate of the “At Both Ends of the Leash” (ABEL) program at Warren Correctional Institution and is able to recognize her son’s seizures before they occur. “You don’t realize the positive impact these dogs have on our lives,” Loftis said. “Our son is in a much safer place with Apollo around. He can alert us to a seizure within one to 55 minutes before it happens. That means so much. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

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Under an innovative therapy program, offenders in Central Prison have been crafting Christmas ornaments before the holiday season. The work is therapy. The offenders are on the mental health caseload at the state’s largest prison. “I tell you, they are the most innovative people anywhere,’’ said Sue Etheridge, an art therapist at the prison. “This is good therapy. It lets them focus on something outside themselves. In confinement like this, people tend to get lost in their own thoughts.”

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