Raleigh, NC -- Drawing people in to visit our state is big business.
It makes us $18 billion a year.
When visitors call wanting to know more about our state, there's a captive audience waiting to tell them all about it. The people behind 1-800-VISIT-NC may know more about our state's attractions than you or me but may never get to visit them.
"Thank you for calling North Carolina Tourism how may I help you?" said Teresa Culpepper as she answered one of the expected 100 calls a day.
When folks from all over the world want to vacation in North Carolina, they call the center and Culpepper and her friends always answer.
"They are in our Asheville area," she told the caller on the line. "You have the Biltmore that has 250 rooms. It's our first home in the nation that's our largest private home that we have here."
She knows a lot about what Asheville offers, yet she's nowhere near the home of the Biltmore estate.
"This is 1-800-VISIT-NC," Culpepper explained to me. "You might have heard it. Saw it on television or heard on the radio or in a magazine, but you're calling the prison."
Yes. Culpepper and the other women in the call center won't be hanging up the phones anytime soon.
They're serving 15 years to life in the maximum security women's prison in Raleigh.
"The call center here at the Women's prison is a great example of a state program that helps save the taxpayers' money," explained Margo Metzger, Public Relations Manager for NC Division of Tourism. "While it's also providing informaiton to travelers who are interested in coming to NC and spending their money."
Culpepper and her fellow inmates will answer the lines more than 100,000 times this year.
Most callers get the travel information they need without ever knowing they talked to a woman behind bars.
But some callers do know and Culpepper is okay with it.
"No, they didn't put me here. So I don't mind, but it's not the focus. I'm not here to talk about prison life. I'm here to talk about tourism. You know we just go on and change the subject and go on to is there anything else I can do for you?" said Culpepper.
And not all the calls are about a future vacation.
"You got people asking about red clay. How do you get red clay? I just came from NC how you get it out of your clothes," she added.
Terry Dixon gets similar questions.
"I think the most bizarre I think that I have gotten before is a lot of people think Myrtle Beach is in NC it's in SC. And of course we tell them we have wonderful beaches just as good if not better than Myrtle Beach,"shared Dixon.
No matter the question the women don't drop calls.
"If we can help you to get you to stay here in NC then we'll do that," Culpepper stated. "If we can't give you the information, we're taught to know what we know and know what we don't. But we have to know where to get the information to help you. We have to give you a website or phone number to tell you to go on so you can get the information that you need."
When you call 1-800-BY-TRAIN, for Amtrak information you also get the prison call center.
The inmates also take calls at times for the NC Department of Transportation when people on the state's roads call 511.
Culpepper likes taking your calls because it gives her a sense of what her life used to be like.
"Just because I'm here, don't you stop. And I enjoy telling people about coming to NC because there is a lot to offer with our mountains, heartland and the coast. I mean you have all three in the one state," she added.
Her records tell the story of why she's here.
In 1999, there was a domestic dispute. She shoots and kills her husband. Now a life sentence.
"I'm sorry I'm here, but I don't focus on I'm here. I go ahead and do my time and go ahead and do my job which I enjoy doing, but I don't focus on the prison," concluded Culpepper.
"I made a mistake, but I'm still able to learn from that mistake and move on," Dixon shared.
She's serving 22 years, 11 months for embezzlement.
She, too, is trying to look forward not back to giving, not taking.
"When you're able to help someone over the phone and help them plan their vacation or help them get to where they're trying to go you're helping someone. You're not just sitting here wasting away," added Dixon.
"I give back to the community. I'm not worthless or not any help. I am help. I do help tourism. I do give back to the state and I'm doing more than my share. I'm not just here. The state's taking care of me, but I believe I'm working besides my paycheck I am working for the state to get it back on its feet and give people jobs because we live off of the hotel tax," said Culpepper.
So, if it comes up in a call, Culpepper will tell the caller she's in prison, but she leaves it at that.
Because telling you about herself is not her job.
"We don't focus on why we're here in prison or that we're in prison. Our job is to get you here to visit the state," she explained.
Besides the call center, the women prisoners also make license plates and furniture for the state.
WFMY News 2