RALEIGH, N.C. – The warm voice answering your 800-VISITNC call will gladly mail you the 174-page Official 2018 Travel Guide, a North Carolina road map, or brochures about Civil War sites, AMTRAK connections or wineries. She can also field detailed questions about whitewater rafting, kayaking, ski slopes, fairs, cultural festivals or events in the state’s 100 counties.
She has been trained to handle all variety of inquiries coming to the Visitor Call Center, and is not a fly-by-night phone jockey: She will be there for a while.
The two crews who answer seven incoming lines – including “511” roadside emergency calls – are all inmates of the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women, the largest women’s penitentiary in the state. Some will be here for life.
Proven track record
The 30-acre prison on the southeast outskirts of Raleigh, near Interstate 40, looks like a scruffy, low-slung college laced in cyclone fencing topped with concertina wire. It has a permanent population of about 1,700 inmates, ages 16 to 89, and also processes 200 to 240 women per month who are entering the North Carolina penal system.
Those doing time here wear color-coded uniforms: yellow (pre-trial protected custody), fuchsia (new arrival), teal (minimum security), purple (medium and close-watch security) or burgundy (death row).
In the back of the buzzer-entry administration building, a monitored door leads to a breezeway and a gatehouse where security is tighter than at many international airports – an electronic walk-through and item-basket X-ray, plus wand and pat-down. A guided walk through a series of security fences leads to a pair of trailers; one processes outgoing tourist mailings, the other is where the phone staff works. The operation includes 30 inmates plus supervisors.
Prison grounds have inmate-tended lawns and plantings. License plates bearing the state’s “First in Flight” motto are manufactured in one building. But according to Teresa Smith, the call center’s onsite supervisor for the Department of Commerce, her station is the most desirable inmate workplace. “At $1 to $3 per day, it is the best-paying prison job and is in one of the few air-conditioned and carpeted workplaces.“
Those chosen to field calls are screened for education level and people skills. Training in state history and tourism marketing is comprehensive and ongoing. These inmates will work well over their long hauls: All wear purple uniforms.
The program began in the 1980s, when tourism inquiries were handled by state employees or an imperfect computer system. The proposed fix was prison labor. Inmates could learn telemarketing skills, operating costs would be minimal and callers could get desired information from a live person.
The program worked like gangbusters. Interim warden Herachio Haywood gets calls from counterparts in other states about it. ”Some states have tried to launch comparable initiatives,” he says, “but those haven’t worked out.”
The North Carolina model involves unique collaboration between the departments of Commerce, Public Safety and Transportation.
In 2017, the Visitor Call Center answered more than 95,000 calls and fulfilled 769,000 phoned requests for maps and brochures. Four days before Hurricane Florence was scheduled to pummel the Carolina coast, the center expanded its 8-to-8 operating hours for the emergency, handling calls from seaside residents and visitors seeking to flee inland and for others who wanted to cancel or adjust plans and reservations.
Any day, questions that can’t be answered by staffers are referred to state or local agencies most likely to have the requested information. Some calls can be handled in 30 seconds, others take 30 minutes to resolve.
Call and response
The call center itself looks like a low-key telemarketing office, a row of back-to-back computer stations for eight to 10 inmates on one of two shifts. Space for manuals are on shelves above each screen. The walls are covered with iconic North Carolina photos of the Outer Banks, mountain vistas, forests and skyscrapers. The room also holds racks of tourist brochures; at the end of the computer bank is a Kids Corner display of “Flat Stanley” cut-outs and letters from children in places like Salinas, California, or the grade-schoolers in North Pole, Alaska, seeking mailed information.
The phones are incoming-only. The computers are only linked to N.C. Tourism sites and databases, with information updated by in-state tourism groups and agencies. A classroom in the call center double-wide is used for inmate training by the area’s Wake Technical Community College.
Throughout the year, staffers from the state-operated visitor centers come to provide updates. Reps from city, county and regional tourist agencies do the same. An annual highlight for call center workers is the December update by the appreciative northeast North Carolina counties, members of whom always bring a barbecue truck and in turn watch a play that call center inmates stage for them.
Phones are staffed every day except Christmas.
Three inmates were asked to share their insights.
“On a slow day, I might get a dozen calls. Last night, I handled 40 from the Outer Banks,” says Kim. Either way, she says, “I feel like I’m in an office and not in a cage. It’s a real job, and I’m making a difference by helping people.”
She has been working in the call center six years. Her most memorable call: “It was from an elderly lady who said, ‘My husband and I drove down from Ohio and we’re trying to get to Dollywood (in Tennessee), but we’re lost and I don’t know where I am.’ I told her, ‘Just stay on the road and tell me what the next sign is that you see.’ The call took a half hour, but I helped get them where they wanted to go.”
Kim is serving a sentence of about 17 years. If she could go anywhere in North Carolina right now, “I would like to see the Dale Chihuly glass display that’s at the Biltmore (in Asheville). It actually lights up at night.”
Aamber will be working at the call center for two years as of December. “I love to help people, and I get a sense of community with people on the outside,” she says.
It’s also an education. “I’ve learned a lot about the fall leaves. As a kid I didn’t appreciate the fall color and had no clue about the mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway and other places where you can really see it.”
If she could head anywhere, it would be Asheville. “There are buskers, live music and antique shops – a real arts vibe with a Southern twist. I’d also go there for the quiet life, a cabin where I could walk outside and be inspired by the mountains.”
Her sentence ends in 2027. She’s hoping for early release in 4 ½ years.
Janet has worked at the call center for two years, and the open-ended questions are often the hardest to handle. “Those are the ones where the caller might say something like, ‘Give me some dates for when I have a 5-year-old for the weekend. Maybe for a treasure hunt.’”
Some callers, Janet says, over-share – “It’s like taxi cab confessions. We get those a lot of time, like someone saying, ‘My mom is dying in Wilmington. … ‘
“People are not used to talking to a real person, and If I’m able to help in a way, that’s wonderful. It’s giving back to a society we wronged. It’s emotional rehabilitation but also it has a weird irony: I am a prisoner telling people how to travel.”
All in all, “It helps me stay in pace with society. It helps avoid ‘prison brain rot.’ “
There’s a seasonal rhythm to the calls, Janet notes. “In fall, calls are about leaves in Asheville and elsewhere in Western North Carolina. Winter is about renting log cabins and getting away. And right before Christmas, people ask about Santa trains in the mountains. Calls are also localized for out-of-state people returning home, like ‘What will there be to do in Lumberton?’
“Summer might be when we get the highest volume of calls. It’s all about beaches and families scouting university towns in advance of the fall semester.”
Where would she go?
“Onslow County has an island that’s good for shelling – an island with nobody there that has pretty shells. I’d have to count that as a dream place.”
Janet is serving a life sentence.