Unparalleled courage: Dene Pitts blazes correctional institution trail

Published 10:12 am Tuesday, April 23, 2024

You think you know somebody.

And then you learn something new.

That goes for Dene Pitts of Advance. She’s not exactly a close friend, but I’ve known her through one of her sons, Brian, who is our sports editor. She comes across as a kind wife and mother, just a kind and quiet person overall.

She’s all of that and more.

When I was shown an article printed in the Stanly News & Press in 2005, I learned something new. She was a trailblazer, working in the male dominated correctional world until her retirement in 2007 after a 33-year career.  We’re reprinting that article here, written by then News & Press managing editor, Joel Barrett. Enjoy.

L. Dene (Zimmerman) Pitts, Assistant Correctional Superintendent for Programs at the Albemarle Correctional Institution, has a quiet, assured manner about her.

Deep inside the medium-security prison behind the locked steel doors and the miles of concertina wire, Pitts talks about being a woman in the field many mistakenly think is a man’s domain.

The fact is that Pitts is one of three women holding the top four positions at ACI. Pitts, like her boss, Superintendent Jennifer Langley, has been in the corrections field for more than 30 years.

“I’ve been in corrections since 1974,” Pitts said. “It’s not something I planned to do. I was looking for a job opportunity and I found it. I got into it and loved it.”

There’s just a certain satisfaction of doing a good job, she said.

She’s quick to point out that the No. 1 mission of the North Carolina Department of Correction is to protect the public and then to help change lives.

“That’s where my main role is … in managing inmate programs,” she said. “If an inmate wants to better himself, we’re here to allow that.”

Her career began when she was hired as a Program Assistant at the Davie County Correctional Center.

“I was the first female at that facility,” Pitts said. “There weren’t a lot of females (working) in the prison system at that time. A lot of people didn’t accept us at first.”

In 1986, she was promoted to Program Supervisor. And in 1991, she earned the position of Program Director for the North Piedmont Area Office in Winston-Salem.

In 1999, the Department of Corrections went to a regionalization concept and the North Piedmont Area Office closed. The department was in the process of building ACI on land off Airport Road north of Badin, so she signed on as program director.

In August 2003, she was promoted to Assistant Correctional Superintendent for Programs at ACI.

In her role, she’s in charge of managing and overseeing medical, mental health services, education programs, religious services, volunteer program, inmate work programs, recreation programs, substance abuse treatment programs and inmate classification for the 856-inmate capacity medium-custody institution.

The prison has a staff of 324 full-time employees and a number of part-time specialty workers such as instructors from Stanly Community College, for its various education programs. It has a payroll of roughly $13 million and is, in essence, its own little community situated on 100 acres in the middle of the fields and woods across from the Stanly County Airport.

Some inmates are assigned to road squads and work picking up trash and clearing debris, while hundreds of others work inside the prison cleaning dorms, maintaining grounds and preparing and cooking food.

Many of those imprisoned at ACI take advantage of educational opportunities such as GED instruction, courses in Information Systems Electrical Electronics, Computer Engineering, Heating, Air Conditioning/Refrigeration and Business courses taught by instructors from Stanly Community College.

The prison has 200 educational programs and hundreds of other part-time or additional programs or classes.

They range from GED programs to Domestic Violence Program, Sex Offender Treatment Programs, Anger Management and even self-help programs such as Character Education, Napoleon Hill, Thinking for a Change and Commitment to Change.

“The opportunity is here for inmates to better themselves as you can tell from the range of Educational and Human Development Treatment (programs),” Pitts said.

The Domestic Violence Program was the first of its kind in the North Carolina prison system and has become the model for other similar programs within the N.C. Division of Prisons.

She’s responsible for transitional programs that prepare those incarcerated to return to the outside world.

Pitts has the responsibility for all of inmate programs and supervision of staff who are responsible for coordinating specific programs.

Managing and supervising the offering of religious services shows the diversity of her job.

The Institution Chaplain, who answers to her, must meet the needs of Christian denominations, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans and even Rastafarian.

There’s even inmates who are of the Moorish Science Temple faith, a religion founded in the early 1900s in Newark, N.J.

Pitts said she’s overcome hurdles in the field and has some advice for women or men looking for a career in Corrections.

“Get that degree if you’re interested in corrections and possibly do an internship at an Institution to see if you like working in prisons,” she said.

She said she tries to be a good role model by hard work and perseverance.

“I would never ask my staff to do anything I haven’t done or wouldn’t do,” she said.

Does she get scared being behind prison walls with felons and worse?

“You must have mutual respect and exercise caution and good judgement,” she said. “You can’t be afraid to work here. I wouldn’t have been doing this for so long if I was.”

She continues to commute 120 miles a day from Zimmerman Road in Advance. Since 1999, she’s gone through three cars. She uses the hour-and-20-minute drive to work each day to plan what’s ahead and the drive home to de-stress.

She’s active in her church and busy with her family (husband Marion and sons David and Brian), so there’s little time for much else.

When she does retire, however, Pitts said she’d like to do some volunteer work.

On her desk, a knickknack sums up the feeling of many working women.

Its message is clear: The best man for the job is a woman.