North Carolina will soon launch a nationwide study to find better ways to battle corruption and improve safety inside the state’s prisons.
The prison management study, requested by Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks, would address many of the problems described in a recent Charlotte Observer series.
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 illegal drugs and cellphones to the state’s maximum-security prisons, the newspaper found.
The state’s review will examine how candidates for prison jobs are screened and hired, how new officers are trained, and how prison leaders staff their facilities, keep out contraband and address employee misconduct, according to Margaret Ekam, a DPS spokesperson.
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The study is being coordinated by the Governor’s Crime Commission, which advises the Department of Public Safety and the governor.
State officials say they’ve not yet determined who will conduct the study or what it will cost. But the goal is to have a report completed by year’s end, Ekam said. That report would be presented to Hooks, who in turn would share it with the governor’s office – and with any lawmakers who request it.
In a statement to the Observer, Hooks said it’s appropriate for his department to consult with experts on best practices. “I remain committed to ensuring that every entity within DPS operates at the highest levels of effectiveness and efficiency,” he said.
North Carolina lawmakers have previously said they, too, will conduct an inquiry into prison corruption in response to the Observer’s investigation.
The legislature will ask prison leaders to provide information about contraband, hiring practices and employee misconduct. After its review, a legislative panel could make recommendations to the full General Assembly before it convenes for the 2018 session next May.
The Observer found that North Carolina doesn’t take key steps to prevent state employees from selling drugs, cellphones and tobacco to prisoners.
The newspaper also revealed 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.
Other stories in the Observer – which focused on the April 26 killing of Sgt. Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution – described what experts called dangerous staff shortages in North Carolina’s prisons.
As of May, about 16 percent of officer positions were vacant, state figures show. And at some maximum security prisons, including Bertie, the vacancy rates are higher.
It’s unclear whether better staffing would have saved Callahan’s life. But some experts told the Observer said that’s a possibility.
Staffing problems also prevent the state from putting some officers through basic training for up to eight months after they’re hired.
Finding people who are willing to work as prison officers isn’t easy. The pay for prison officers in North Carolina lags far below the national average. And the work is dangerous and demanding.
Last year, on average, a North Carolina prison officer was assaulted once every eight hours.
Prison leaders acknowledge that the state faces significant staffing challenges. Many of the state’s large maximum-security prisons – such as Bertie, in northeastern North Carolina, and Lanesboro Correctional Institution, southeast of Charlotte – are located in rural areas, where recruiting can be difficult.
State leaders have begun to put some changes in place. At Lanesboro and several other prisons, officials are testing new ways to prevent employees from smuggling drugs, cellphones and other contraband to inmates.
Staff Writer Gavin Off contributed.