Something wonderful behind the prison walls of Lanesboro

By: Delores Thomas - Guest columnist

Sometimes a piece of distressing news gets out about the Lanesboro Correctional Institute. After all, they are housing the most difficult and hardened inmates in our state. When another prison in the state has an inmate they cannot seem to handle, they call Lanesboro and ask to transfer him there. But a lot of good also goes on behind those gates — and this is a story about some of the day-to-day operations for good that happen there.

As a member of the Community Resource Council, I recently toured one of several Department of Public Safety Enterprise operations. There are several located across the state at various DPS Institutes. The one I toured was at the Lanesboro Correctional Institute, located near the town of Polkton in Anson County. Lanesboro is the largest of the state’s prison facilities and at present in the three facilities (maximum, medium and minimum), there is a total of 1,723 inmates.

An employee of Lanesboro Correctional Institute, Mark Poplin, met my husband and me at the gate and led us past a class of men taking a course in brick and stone laying, past beautiful vegetable gardens, a greenhouse and a large recycling area, to the huge building housing the Enterprise metal operations. Just outside is a beautiful metal praying mantis overlooking the building’s entrance. As the door was opened, we walked inside to a hot, non-air-conditioned facility where inmates were working in sweat-soaked shirts, with perspiration running down their faces, doing their jobs just like anyone — perhaps with more enthusiasm, even, than someone on the “outside.”

The metal products plant currently employs 42 minimum custody inmates who produce a variety of stainless steel kitchen equipment, beds and lockers for other prison facilities, outdoor wood-burning and gas-fired grills and fire rings, as well as the huge order they are currently producing for the N.C. Parks and Recreation systems. Among those items are aluminum poles for the park signs, picnic tables and huge trash bins fabricated from heavy-gauge steel. They also receive special requests for stainless tissue holders, custom engraved grills and other items which are presented to state employees as service awards. For fabrication, they use shears, press brakes, saws, plasmas and machines called piranhas — obviously so named because they can eat the metal as necessary.

A serious inmate can earn a year of schooling and after working two years with the Enterprise, will receive an apprenticeship in combination welding through the U.S. and North Carolina departments of labor. Currently there is a shortage of welders, so the training these men receive will be valuable to them when they exit the prison system — which is the main purpose of prison anyway: to rehabilitate and train people to earn a living and be a positive influence on the outside.

In the CAD office, two inmates were at work — one had just completed the design of a metal stool while another showed me his inventory process.

As Brian Johnson, supervisor of the welding department, toured us through the operation, it was plain to see from his comments that he cares about the inmate employees and treats them with respect. When I mentioned this, Brian said, “I don’t tell them, ‘this is your punishment. I will treat you like a man — like a fellow worker.’” There was no cat-calling as we toured, only polite smiles, hand waves or an extended hand.

There are Enterprise factories in many of the DPS facilities: a wood-manufacturing facility in Alexander County; a braille script facility in Scotland County; a canning operation in Halifax County; and sewing plants at Scotland, Columbus, and Tabor City, among many other operations across the state. All these operations save the state a lot of money. For instance, the sewing plant makes uniforms and shirts for DPS, as well as provides quality inmate training in various plant operations.

Even the maximum facility at Lanesboro has an enterprise called Prison Industry Enterprise, which packages orders for small gift packages ordered by family or friends for inmates.

In addition to Brian Johnson, other supervisory personnel at The Enterprise are Scott Ingram, supervisor for Fabrication; Charles Cummings, powder coating supervisor; Johnny Hathcock, installation supervisor; Mike Horne, assistant manager; and Clayton Wright, manager.

Delores Thomas is chair of the Lanesboro Community Resource Council.

Delores Thomas

Guest columnist