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Wheeler Correctional Facility Celebrates 25 Years

Wheeler Correctional Facility Celebrates 25 Years
WHEELER WARDENS — Pausing for a photograph in front of decorations commemorating Wheeler Correctional Facility’s 25th anniversary are, from left, the facility’s first Warden, Don Stewart; current warden Shawn Gillis; and Vance Laughlin, who served as Warden from 2015-2021.Photo by Deborah Clark
Wheeler Correctional Facility Celebrates 25 Years
WHEELER WARDENS — Pausing for a photograph in front of decorations commemorating Wheeler Correctional Facility’s 25th anniversary are, from left, the facility’s first Warden, Don Stewart; current warden Shawn Gillis; and Vance Laughlin, who served as Warden from 2015-2021.Photo by Deborah Clark

Wheeler Correctional Facility (WCF) marked 25 years in the community of Alamo with a celebration luncheon on November 28 attended by guests who included former wardens and staff, members of the Georgia Department of Corrections, and local and state dignitaries. The award-winning prison, which is equipped to house 3,000 inmates, is privately owned by Core Civic and is one of the two largest prisons in the state of Georgia. Coffee County’s facility, also owned by Core Civic, equals Wheeler’s facility in size. WCF partners with the Georgia Department of Corrections not only to provide incarceration and rehabilitation for male medium security offenders, but to offer a wide range of reentry, educational, and vocational programs for inmates — from earning a general education diploma to acquiring certificates in welding and diesel mechanics. The goal is returning inmates to communities where they can become productive members of society. Mistress of Ceremonies Victoria White, Quality Assurance Manager; Heather Kersey, Assistant Warden of Programs; and current Warden Shawn Gillis welcomed guests.

White, who has been employed at WCF since 2001, outlined key events in the history of the facility.

WCF was built in 1998 with a capacity of 1,0001,700 inmates. Since that time, the facility has doubled in size and the current inmate population now numbers about 2,500. Wardens have included: Don Stewart, 1998-2000; Ralph Kemp, 2000-2012; Jason Medlin, 2012-2015; Vance Laughlin, 2015-2021; Steve Upton, 2021-2022; Doug Williams, 2022-2023; and Shawn Gillis, 2023-current.

Since it was established, WCF’s administration has been involved with the surrounding community through building and grounds maintenance projects for Wheeler County and its municipalities of Alamo and Glenwood, the Wheeler County Board of Education, Little Ocmulgee State Park, the Wheeler County Chamber of Commerce, and more. WCF’s administration and staff have also interacted with the community through donations to the Senior Citizen’s Center, by holding quarterly community meetings in partnership with the Wheeler Chamber, through blood drives, supporting school sporting events and other events.

Around the year 2010, the state’s prison population grew substantially, necessitating an expansion of 800-900 units at WCF. A second dining hall was added, a new and larger chapel was built for faith-based programs, and the parking lot was expanded.

At WCF, inmates are offered academic programs for a General Education Diploma, Adult Basic Education, and Remedial Education; individual and group counseling that targets the topics of Family Violence, Confronting Self, Thinking for a Change, and Substance Abuse; general recreation; various worship services, and faith-based programs; as well as vocational/ on-the- job training in Computers, Plumbing, Electrical, Horticulture, Masonry, Carpentry, Welding, and Diesel Mechanics.

WCF was awarded ACA accreditation in threeyear intervals from 2000 to 2021. The facility’s medical department was presented with the Medical Association of Georgia accreditation in three-year intervals for the years 2000 to 2015. In 2018, the facility was named Core Civic’s “Facility of the Year.”

Don Stewart, who served as the facility’s first warden, and is currently a Senior Director for WCF’s parent company, Core Civic, recalled the ribboncutting and open house for the new facility in 1998, an event attended by some 400 community members and others. “I thought then that there is something special about Wheeler County and its people and what this facility is going to do.”

He said WCF has touched many lives in its 25 years of operation and has impacted not just Wheeler County, but beyond the county’s borders. The privately-owned facility has contributed to the community’s tax base, provided jobs, and brought in revenue as money is spent by staff in the area. Additionally, WCF has formed partnerships with the community and gotten involved in local activities.

He noted that Wheeler accepted its first inmates on December 1, 1998, just a few months after Core Civic and the Georgia Department of Corrections initiated the final phase of opening the new facility. “I would be remiss if I did not talk about the great partnership with the Department of Corrections that began May 1, 1998, that has never wavered. It works best when we realize we are all in this together, and the DOC has exemplified this from day one and we truly appreciate it.”

Stewart praised the staff at WCF, noting, “Staff is what matters most, not the buildings. Although the buildings help, if people don’t follow and enforce policy day in and day out, it all does not work. Correctional officers walk the toughest beat and get the least recognition.”

He added that his greatest satisfaction is seeing the success of people whose lives he has touched. A number of those with whom he worked or who came after him, many serving as wardens, have gone on to higher positions in Core Civic. “I could not be prouder, and I am also proud of the community. Thank you for your support over the last 25 years.”

Vance Laughin, Managing Director for Core Civic’s Division 6, spoke about his tenure as warden at WCF. Laughlin, who began his career in corrections in 1987, said he did not plan to become a prison warden. He aspired to be a game warden, like his father, but fate took him in another direction. In his time with Core Civic, he has worked in five states, three time zones and 12 prisons. “In all of the places I have worked, no community has ever embraced us (Core Civic) as part of the community the way Wheeler did. I love the community and people. I made lifelong friends here.”

He also mentioned his experience in working with the State of Georgia and the Department of Corrections. “I have worked in several states for several customers, including contracts for all three federal agencies — the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service, and Immigration — and this is the absolute best customer (the State of Georgia) I have worked for, from operations leadership, to the law enforcement branch, to medical. Georgia is the best there is in the business; no one disputes that. It’s the approach they take to bring us (Core Civic) in as one of their own.”

Laughlin said that, indisputably, one of things he missed most after leaving Wheeler is the WCF staff. When he returned for the anniversary celebration last week he found, “It’s the same core group that makes Wheeler what it is — just a good prison.”

Warden Gillis, who first joined Core Civic in 1999 as a correctional officer, credited Warden Stewart with giving him his employment opportunity. At the beginning of his career Gillis spent nine years at the Wheeler facility where he held a number of jobs, including programs manger, chief of security, and chief of unit management. He praises the organization for which he works for offering its employees advancement. “It shows that the sky is the limit,” he said. He also referenced Wheeler’s partnership with the Georgia Department of Corrections, noting that Annettia Toby, regional director for the DOC’s Southeast Region, was among the guests attending the anniversary celebration. “Our relationship with the Department of Corrections is solid, and we appreciate that and look forward to it continuing for another 25 years.” He also thanked local law enforcement for working with WCF to ensure the facility and the community stay safe.

LONG-TIME EMPLOYEES — Staff with 25 years of service at WCF who received plaques commemorating their tenure, from left to right are: Lajuanna Johnson, Felicia Corbett, Lakesheia Wright, Joe Harmon, Jr., Valerie Lott, and Theresa Mills.Photo by Deborah Clark

THE TEAM — Warden Shawn Gillis’ administrative staff from left to right: Karen Shepherd (Assistant Chief of Security), Rodney McCloud, (Assistant Warden of Operations), Jennifer Clark (Contract Monitor for the Georgia Department of Corrections), Darriel Royal (Chief of Security), Heather Kersey (Assistant Warden of Programs), Kortney Gay (Chief of Unit Management), and Warden Gillis.Photo by Deborah Clark

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