Weeks after the Observer published an investigation into widespread corruption in North Carolina’s prisons, state officials have begun testing new ways to prevent employees from smuggling drugs, cellphones and other contraband to inmates.
At Lanesboro Correctional Institution, 45 miles southeast of Charlotte, workers reporting for duty now must take off their shoes and pass them through an X-ray machine, staff members told the Observer. Employees are also now required to walk past devices that are designed to find contraband cellphones.
“As we move toward improvements in the security screening process at prison entrances, Lanesboro and a few other facilities are being identified to pilot some options and determine what works best,” prison spokesman Keith Acree wrote in an email to the Observer.
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State officials declined to specify their new security measures or to say which other prisons are testing them.
But starting in August or September, state prison leaders hope to begin “pat/frisk searches” on all staff and visitors who enter the prisons, Acree said.
The Observer’s investigation found that officers who are paid to prevent prison corruption are often behind it. Officers frequently team up with prisoners on crimes that endanger staff members, inmates and the public.
Staff members smuggle in most of the illicit drugs and cellphones to the state’s maximum-security prisons, the newspaper found. In the past five years, more than 50 North Carolina prison employees have been charged with bringing contraband into prisons. Some inmates and experts say it’s easier to buy drugs in prison than on the street.
When employees smuggle in contraband cellphones, it can compromise the security of prisons and endanger public safety, experts say. At Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham, a prison sergeant reportedly provided cellphones to a notorious gang leader. Locked in solitary confinement, the inmate used a phone in 2014 to orchestrate a murder-for-hire plot against a prosecutor’s father.
The Observer found that North Carolina doesn’t take key steps to prevent state employees from selling drugs, cellphones and tobacco to prisoners.
The state doesn’t frisk correctional officers when they report for duty. It doesn’t use technology that has foiled contraband smugglers elsewhere. And it allows employees to bring their lunches to work, giving them a way to hide illegal goods.
Other states are more strict.
Prisons in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia do not allow officers to bring in personal lunchboxes. They also subject officers to pat-down searches.
Prisons in Pennsylvania and Indiana regularly use ion detection scanning – a technology used in airports to detect explosives – to look for drug residue on officers reporting for duty.
North Carolina prison leaders say the large majority of their employees are honest and ethical.
But in a statement issued to the Observer last month, state Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks said prison leaders are looking at how to increase their use of drug- and cellphone-detection dogs. Prison leaders say they are also moving ahead with plans to introduce four full-body scanners, along with equipment that will pinpoint the location of contraband cellphones in some prisons.
Will changes work?
One Lanesboro officer, who declined to be named because he fears retribution, said he’s skeptical that prison leaders will be able to block the flow of contraband without more thoroughly checking the backgrounds of job applicants, improving pay for officers and prosecuting the corrupt ones.
The officer said he worries that the prison employees who are supposed to screen fellow officers for contraband will instead collude with them.
The Observer’s investigation showed that prison officials have hired officers with histories of crime, violence and unethical behavior, failing to follow the examples of states that more thoroughly vet job applicants. Pay for North Carolina’s prison officers lags far behind the national average.
The low pay can make officers susceptible to corruption, inmates and experts say. A pound of marijuana can sell for more than $9,000 inside a prison, and a single cellphone can fetch more than $500.
“I think (the new screening process) will halt stuff initially,” said another Lanesboro employee, who also asked not be identified. “Do I think people will figure out how to get stuff in? Yeah.”
Gavin Off: 704-358-6038