In North Carolina, newly hired prison officers usually get just one week of orientation before they’re put to work.
They quickly discover that working inside a prison is a demanding, dangerous job. Inmates may try to manipulate them, throw urine on them or even attack them. Once every eight hours, on average, a N.C. prison officer was assaulted last year.
In April, a 29-year-old prison sergeant was killed as she responded to a fire that had been set inside Bertie Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina. An inmate has been accused of beating Sgt. Meggan Callahan to death with the fire extinguisher she’d brought.
But the initial week-long orientation that new officers receive doesn’t prepare them for such assaults. Several officers told the Observer they weren’t trained how to restrain unruly inmates or given an opportunity to shadow an experienced guard. Many officers interviewed said it took months before they got a four-week basic training class, where they learned crucial skills such as how to defend themselves when inmates attack.
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Angela Smith, a former officer at Tabor Correctional Institution near the South Carolina line, said she was on the job eight months before going to basic training. Tabor houses 1,700 inmates, including about 115 people convicted of murder and about 105 convicted of rape.
“When you start there, you go through your little orientation and then you’re just kicked out to the wolves,” said Chesenna Ray, a former officer at Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham.
That contrasts starkly with the approach taken by some other states, where newly hired officers receive 10 to 14 weeks of training before their first day on the job.
North Carolina’s approach is “crazy,” says Gary Harkins, former research and information director for the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network.
“You're asking (the officer) to get hurt. You're throwing the guy into the lion's den with no sword,” he said. “You get a poorly trained correctional officer.”
It’s unclear whether two officers who were near Callahan when she was killed had gone through basic training. Callahan’s mother, Wendy, said that most of the officers who worked for her daughter had been on the job less than a year – and that one of them had not yet gotten basic training.
Her message to prison leaders: “Train them first. Train them before they walk in the doors.”
Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks agrees that “in an ideal world, we’d have all of our officers trained prior to going into those doors.”
But, he said staff, shortages make that difficult.
Other states require far more up-front training:
▪ In New Jersey, those who want to be correctional officers must attend a 14-week training academy and complete two weeks of supervised work before their first day alone on the job. At the academy, officers undergo firearms training and take classes in law, ethics and correctional procedures. They also learn skills to communicate with unruly inmates.
▪ Virginia requires 10 weeks of training – six at an academy and four at a prison, said Greg Carter, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections. After the training, new officers must shadow a veteran officer for a minimum of 200 hours, Carter said.
▪ California’s correctional officers receive 12 weeks of pre-employment training, during which they're paid $3,100 per month.
Former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph said county jail staff go through a 10-week school and then shadow experienced officers for six months. He called minimal training and a lack of a mentoring program “a recipe for disaster.”
North Carolina prison leaders say budget cuts in the 2000s hurt the state’s training program. But they say they are working to improve how the they train and mentor new hires.
New officers are now assigned “career readiness coaches,” who advise them how to cope with the challenges of their jobs.
And the state has provided “crisis intervention training” to about 6,000 staff members so that they are better able to deal with disturbed inmates without resorting to force. Hundreds more are getting trained in specific skills needed to deal with difficult inmates, said David Guice, chief deputy secretary for adult correction and juvenile justice.
The Department of Public Safety has also begun to convert Samarcand, a juvenile justice facility in Moore County, into a law enforcement training center. Samarcand now hosts a number of month-long classes for correctional officers. Prison officials hope that will help them reduce the amount of time new correctional officers must wait before getting basic training.
“Am I satisfied with how quickly we get people into training?” Guice said. “The answer is no.”