By Laurie Paolicelli
The warm voice answering your 800-VISITNC call will gladly mail you the 174-page Official 2019 NC Travel Guide and a North Carolina road map.
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.
The 30-acre prison on the outskirts of Raleigh, 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.
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.
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.
The call center itself looks like a low-key telemarketing office, a row of back-to-back computer stations for eight to ten inmates on one of two shifts. 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 like the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.
Throughout the year, staffers from the state-operated visitor centers come to provide updates. In May 2019, Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens and Visitors Bureau Communications Director, Patty Griffin, gave inmates an overview of changing Hillsborough and UNC construction updates and highlighted what’s new for visitors.
USA Today talked with one inmate who shared the following observation: “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. It actually lights up at night.”
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.