When Phillip Boney became a North Carolina prison officer in 2006, he knew he’d have to deal with dangerous, unethical people.
He just never thought they’d be his co-workers.
At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, the former teaching assistant said he rarely felt intimidated by the inmates at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, 45 miles southeast of Charlotte. But something else began to trouble him:
Corrupt officers were colluding with inmates to commit crimes.
By 2013, he’d had enough. He wrote four letters addressed to state prison leaders, investigators and Gov. Pat McCrory, detailing some of the wrongdoing and pleading for help.
In his then-anonymous letters, Boney wrote about prison employees who “put the honorable staff members at risk.” Some sold inmates drugs and cellphones, he wrote. Others helped gang members attack prisoners. Worst of all, he alleged, a prison leader promoted corrupt staff members.
Lanesboro, Boney wrote, had the “worst kind of gang in the state … The ‘Dirty Staff Gang.’ ”
A Charlotte Observer investigation found that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside the state’s prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it. Prison officers frequently team up with inmates on crimes that endanger staff members, inmates and the public.
The newspaper found that prison employees have undermined the intent of incarceration – to punish inmates, rehabilitate them and separate them from society so that they can no longer harm innocent people.
N. C. taxpayers, who pay more than $1 billion each year to fund the prisons, unwittingly bankroll the corruption. They pay even more when the state reaches legal settlements with inmates who have been abused or mistreated.
Do I think I have corrupt staff in every prison, in every (maximum-security) prison? I would be naive to say I didn’t.
George Solomon, North Carolina’s recently retired director of prisons.
State leaders created the very conditions that allow corruption to flourish, the Observer found.
Lawmakers placed many of the state’s 55 prisons in rural areas where it’s hard to recruit employees. And they have failed to provide officers competitive wages.
Prison officials, meanwhile, hire some employees with troubled pasts, and put new officers on the job with minimal training.
They make it easy for officers to profit illegally – sneaking in drugs, cellphones and weapons. Unlike some states, North Carolina doesn’t frisk officers when they report for duty and has been slow to use technology to find contraband.
The smuggled drugs and phones spur gang violence, allow prisoners to orchestrate crimes outside prison walls and cause many inmates to leave prison as addicted – and dangerous – as when they went in.
State prison leaders say they’re cracking down on corruption.
Most of the state’s 8,000 correctional officers are ethical and hardworking, they say.
But leaders know they have a problem.
“Do I think I have corrupt staff in every prison, in every (maximum-security) prison?” said George Solomon, the state’s recently retired director of prisons. “I would be naive to say I didn’t.”
On Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper also responded to the Observer’s investigation with a statement:
“I’m deeply concerned about violence and contraband in our prisons and troubled that many of the problems spotlighted here weren’t detected sooner. Those who guard prisoners should not be enabling and committing crimes themselves. I’ve asked my new Secretary of Public Safety to take a hard look at these issues and recommend ways to make our prisons safer.”
What the Observer found
To investigate prison corruption, Observer reporters analyzed state data and reviewed thousands of pages of documents. They interviewed or corresponded with more than 65 current and former prison employees, more than 80 inmates, and dozens of prison experts, lawyers and law enforcement officials.
The Observer found:
▪ Since 2012, at least 70 state employees have been criminally charged for offenses inside the prisons. More than 400 others have been fired for on-the-job misconduct. In some cases, when employees resign while under investigation, no charges are filed.
▪ 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.
One correctional officer was fired from his post in Vermont after he pressed a gun to a man’s head so hard that his ear bled. Four months later, North Carolina hired him to work as a prison officer.
▪ Employees smuggle in most of the illicit drugs and cellphones to the state’s maximum-security prisons. 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 find drugs in prison than on the street.
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 to orchestrate a murder-for-hire plot against a prosecutor’s father.
▪ Some officers are accused of torturing inmates.
Former prisoner Jerome Peters says he was handcuffed from behind one day in 2012, when three officers assaulted him in a hallway that was not covered by video cameras. They fractured his arm and pelvic bone, leaving him in a wheelchair for a year. Peters and six other Central Prison inmates won settlements from the state after filing lawsuits alleging brutality.
And at Sampson Correctional Institution, east of Fayetteville, officers allegedly made inmates rub skin-blistering hot sauce on their genitals.
▪ Since 2012, more than 65 employees have been fired for getting too close to inmates. Some exchanged letters with them. Others carried on blatant sexual affairs with the prisoners they were supposed to guard.
At Brown Creek Correctional Institution in Polkton, authorities say a food service worker had sex with an inmate – and helped the convicted murderer escape.
And at the now-closed Wayne Correctional Center, in eastern North Carolina, a former prison substance abuse counselor was accused of carrying on a long-running sexual affair with inmate William Walker, a convicted murderer. Walker says they even had sex on the superintendent’s desk – and that his lover smuggled in a poodle to keep him company on the weekends. The counselor was fired because of the relationship, records show.
State: Misconduct will be addressed
State prison leaders say they have no tolerance for officers who abuse or collude with inmates.
“Where there is misconduct at any level, it will be addressed,” said Erik Hooks, the state’s new Department of Public Safety secretary.
With plans to step up their battle against contraband, prison leaders hope to deploy four airport-style body scanners and four cellphone detection devices at problem prisons. They say they are quick to notify state or local law enforcement agencies when they find officers committing crimes.
State leaders say they’re also working to improve the caliber of staff. They’ve increased pay for correctional officers, expanded their recruitment efforts, and introduced a new assessment tool to ensure candidates are psychologically suited for prison work.
But top prison officials and the state lawmakers who provide their funding have failed to adopt strategies that have proven successful in other states.
Prison officials rarely bring in drug-sniffing dogs, for instance, or even ask officers to turn out their pockets when they report for work each day, current and former employees say. They don’t randomly drug test officers. And they don’t check Facebook pages for signs of trouble in the backgrounds of would-be hires.
Employees said they wonder if some of their colleagues are on the wrong side of the bars.
“It’s sad to say, a lot of times I would trust gang members before I would trust my co-workers,” says Chesenna Ray, a former officer at Polk. “There’s so much corruption. Nobody knows who to trust.”
‘A setup for problems’
North Carolina built its largest maximum-security prisons in rural areas, at the direction of lawmakers who said those counties needed an economic boost.
But there was a downside to putting prisons in thinly populated counties: It’s difficult to find enough qualified officers who are willing to live and work in those areas.
“It was a setup for problems from the beginning,” said Jennie Lancaster, a former high-ranking state prison official.
The state fails to give new hires the training they need, many current and former officers say.
Some states require that officers get more than two months of training before they begin working. Not North Carolina. Here, after just one week of orientation, new hires are routinely put on the job guarding career criminals in situations that can turn violent.
Once every eight hours, on average, a North Carolina prison officer was assaulted last year. In April, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed as she rushed to put out a trash can fire at Bertie Correctional Institution. Authorities say an inmate beat her to death with the fire extinguisher she’d brought to douse the flames.
Jeffrey Scott Carter, who worked as an officer at Alexander Correctional Institution for eight months in 2015, remembers going through orientation, where he learned a lot about prison policies but almost nothing about the day-to-day requirements of the job.
Then he and another rookie were required to guard 120 inmates in one of the prison’s toughest units. He recalls asking a sergeant on one of his first days what he should do.
“He said, ‘The inmates have been here. They’ll tell you what to do.’ ”
‘Them officers are broke’
North Carolina pays its prison officers an average of about $32,000 a year at minimum-security prisons and $35,000 at maximum-security prisons - less than most animal control officers. Nationally, most correctional officers and jailers are paid far more - an average of about $47,000.
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.
Troy Person, a former inmate at Scotland Correctional Institution, in Laurinburg, said he paid two officers to bring him cellphones, liquor, condoms, pornography and marijuana, which he resold to fellow prisoners.
“Them officers are broke,” said Person, who served more than 20 years for multiple counts of forgery. “That’s why there are so many cellphones in prison.”
State funding cuts have also left abusive officers with less to fear.
Lawmakers in 2014 slashed the budget for Prisoner Legal Services, the state-funded agency that once filed lawsuits on behalf of inmates who alleged mistreatment. Now the office is so thinly staffed that inmates have to file their own lawsuits.
“These prisoners have no one to go to,” says Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the criminal justice reform group NC CURE.
A call for help
Boney, the Lanesboro officer, said that the many honest prison employees felt powerless, too.
Like them, he was worried. He was working at the prison on Sept. 28, 2012, when inmate Wesley Turner died in a vicious gang stabbing.
A lawyer for the killer said in a court hearing that in his opinion, prison officials either sanctioned the September 2012 attack or looked the other way. Two state investigators said they reached the same opinion.
Next time, Boney realized, “it could be one of us officers.”
“About 90 percent of the staff ...(are) praying for the day these dirty staff members are walked out,” he wrote in one of his letters to state prison leaders and the governor.
Instead, Boney lost his job. He was fired in 2015 after prison leaders said he was insubordinate. He said he believes he was dismissed, in part, because of his complaints about corruption.
Boney said he did see some changes at Lanesboro. In one of his last letters, he thanked state prison leaders for removing some managers he believed were corrupt. But, he said, other dirty officers remained.
Now 39 and living in Charlotte, Boney is working again as a middle school teaching assistant.
It’s hard work – and it pays even less than his job at Lanesboro. But he never thinks about going back.
“It ain’t worth it,” he said.