By Steve Williams

Rising rental costs had Dee-Dee James yearning to buy a house of her own and contemplating a way to earn more income.

A memory etched in her mind from long ago surfaced.

James thought of the “most favorite person” in her life, a cousin who had been incarcerated. She wanted to visit him in prison but didn’t have adequate transportation to get there.

This memory led to her plan for starting a new business on the side plus satisfying a desire to reunite loved ones in prison with family members and friends.

That was the beginning of TOPS, which stands for Transportation Onto Prison Sites.

To her knowledge, it is the only such business in the state of Tennessee, which has 16 prisons.

Dee-Dee bought a black, 15-seat passenger van and its first trip will be to the Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City on Saturday, Aug. 6. The van is scheduled to leave Knoxville at 9:10 that morning and arrive at the prison site by noon. Visitation hours begin at 12:30. The cost for the round-trip is $65.

Other prison trips are planned for the first two weekends of August: the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville, the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in Pikeville and the Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg.

The last two weekend trips in August will go to the prison sites in Middle and West Tennessee, with the cost per rider being $85 and $110, respectively, for the longer distances from Knoxville.

“I’ve been thinking on this for many years,” said James. “It’s probably been 15 to 20 years since he (her cousin) was in prison. I thought about it then and over the course of years, I’ve revisited it. But now I guess I’m in a better position to start it.”

James was asked what was the most important thing she wanted to accomplish in this business.

“Reuniting loved ones with their incarcerated loved ones,” she answered. “Bringing families back together. Bringing friends back together. I’m not a judge, so it’s not up to me to judge why they are in jail. But if I can bring a sense of peace to the inmates and to the people who are going to go see them and just boost the overall morale; that makes me feel really good.”

The money-making part of the new adventure for Dee-Dee is important and could lead to getting her own house, but as she said, it’s not the most important thing.

James, who lives in the Norwood community of Knoxville, has a full-time job. She works in the field of Information Technology and is a Business System Analyst 3 at Oak Ridge Associates University.

The Central High and ITT Tech graduate said the most challenging part of starting her own business was “lack of time.”

James created her own website,

She designed a TOPS logo that’s on the 14-passenger seat van and flyers that have been posted in strategic places in the area.

James also has utilized Webmaster to reach out to wardens across the state for their facilities’ visitation times and other general information.

On the website, visitors/riders can reserve a seat on the van and pay online.

“I’m trying to keep everything as professional as I can for the efficiency of the business,” Dee-Dee said.

She’s even giving each rider a “goody bag” that will include a complimentary bottle of water, a small snack and marketing information from other local businesses.

Dee-Dee hopes her new business will be successful enough financially for her to “give back.”

She grew up in the Boys & Girls Club in Christenberry and later worked 10 years full-time for the Boys & Girl Club, the latter years as Youth Service Coordinator on the pre-school side.

“The Boys & Girls Club did a lot to help me and my family, and I would like to be able to award a scholarship to a couple of their kids,” said James.

“There are so many ways this (business) could go to help people.”

Dee-Dee even envisioned a mother visiting an incarcerated young son on a regular basis and eventually driving the van and earning extra money.

The only thing James said she still hopes to do with her new business is to physically introduce herself to the warden at each of the prisons to establish a relationship.