Inmates responding to calls on the 800-VISITNC phone line will answer questions about whitewater rafting, fairs, ski slopes, festivals, Civil War sites and wineries in the state’s 100 counties.
The program was created in 1980, when tourism calls were handled by state employees or an automated service. Through the program, inmates learn telemarketing skills and callers can talk to a live person. “At $1 to $3 per day, it’s the best-paying prison job and is in one of the few air-conditioned and carpeted workplaces,” said
Teresa Smith, the call center’s supervisor for the Department of Commerce.
Potential inmate employees are screened for their education level and people skills. They are then trained in tourism marketing and taught about the state’s history. Although the inmates have ac- cess to live telephone lines, there are restrictions in place. The phones only allow incoming calls, and the computers in the office can only access North Carolina tourism sites and industry databases.
Some calls take about 30 seconds to handle but others can take up to 30 minutes, according to the article. “On a slow day, I might get a dozen calls. Last night, I handled 40 from Outer Banks,” said Kim, an inmate serving 17 years at the prison. “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.”
Kim remembered one of her most memorable calls, which came from an older woman who had gotten lost trying to drive to Tennessee. “I just told her, ‘Just stay on the road and tell me what the next sign is that you see,’” she said. “The call took a half hour, but I helped get them where they wanted to go.”
The call center is open every day except for Christmas, including during weather events. In 2017, inmate employees answered over 95,000 phone calls and fulfilled 769,000 requests for maps and brochures, according to the article. That included four days of expanded hours before Hurricane Florence, when they fielded calls from coastal residents and visitors heading inland who needed help with their plans.