Epley Saw Western Youth Institution Built & Will See It Fall

Author: Jerry Higgins, Communications Officer

Jerlene Epley, one of hundreds of employees who worked at Western Youth Institution during its 41 years of operation, saw it built from the ground-up. On Saturday, June 11, she will see the “High Rise” fall back to the earth.

The 89-year-old Epley, one of the first female employees hired when the Morganton prison opened in 1972, will be on-site this weekend when the former 16-story facility is imploded to make room for a regional N.C. National Guard training center. 

Staff of the Western Youth Institution during the facility's early years (above) and the building earlier this year.

Epley was hired by former Business Manager Tom Corley to fulfill administrative duties. That included helping out on most of the 16 floors when asked by the any of the five facility superintendents with which she served. She also was one of the first persons the public met as they entered the front door and glanced left into her work area, or that offenders met when they were checked in to serve their sentences.

“I enjoyed it. It was very difficult work,” Epley said from her Morganton home. “I worked with a group at Broughton Hospital (in Morganton) before they opened the building. I didn’t understand the work at first but I got used to it. When people asked me where I worked, I told them, ‘I work at the High Rise.’ It was a good place to work.”

The WYI housed youthful offenders, some below the age of 18 when it first opened. Originally, it also housed offenders older than 21 but that changed as conflicts arose between the wide age range of the offenders. Eventually older offenders were moved to other prisons and the facility focused on offenders around the age of 18.

Epley still remembers every Monday when a bus would arrive at the facility “from Raleigh” filled with offenders she would help check in and clear. 

“I was never tied down to doing just one thing all the time,” Epley said. “It was a very trying job at times. I was always busy. It was different from any other job I had. At first, I was nervous because I was the first person those young men would see when they came in. After a while, I got used to it.”

Epley said she met many interesting people. She’s sad that former Superintendent Mack Jarvis won’t be in attendance as he passed away last month. “I loved working for him,” she said. “He was so kind and caring to all of us.”

One aspect of Epley’s life made the correctional job worthwhile. She worked with young people all her life, especially at her local church. She praised the educational system in place at WYI for the offenders and also continues to be a staunch supporter of the mission of corrections.

“I believe in giving young people a second chance,” Epley said. “Most of these men got into trouble without realizing it. But I also realized where I worked. I never took one of these boys out for a home visit for the weekend. You had to remember they never came in here after singing in the church choir, if you know what I mean.”

Epley hadn’t been to the empty WYI building in many years until her daughter took her there recently. She said she took a long look at it and remembered visiting every floor, including the top floor: “We girls always had a correctional officer with us,” she said. 

“I can’t imagine what it will be like to watch them blow up the building. I’ve never seen something like that before. I can’t imagine what it will look like without the ‘High Rise’ here.  I remember when they built it and I’ll see them tear it down.”

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