Charlotte Observer investigation prompts state review of prison corruption

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In a cell block inside one of the state’s most dangerous prisons, an inmate stabs a rival gang member 13 times. When investigators examine surveillance videos of the murder, they’re troubled by what happens a few hours later.

North Carolina lawmakers are launching an inquiry into prison corruption in response to a Charlotte Observer investigation that found a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence – much of it fueled by employees.

The General Assembly will direct state prison leaders to turn over information about contraband, hiring practices and employee misconduct. After its review, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety could make recommendations to the full legislature before it convenes for the 2018 session next May.

Senate leader Phil Berger said most prison employees are dedicated and hard-working. Still, he said, “I don’t think there’s any question that there are some problems, and there are some things that I think we have a responsibility to look at and try to address.”

House Speaker Tim Moore said the legislature wants to “protect our brave corrections officers with a thorough oversight committee review.”

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House Speaker Tim Moore, left, and Senate leader Phil Berger support an inquiry into state prison corruption. Chris Seward AP

The Observer’s investigation found that the very officers who are paid to prevent prison corruption are often behind it. Officers frequently team up with inmates on crimes that endanger staff members, inmates and the public.

Berger said he asked his staff to insert the prison requirements into the legislature’s budget bill after reading the Observer’s stories.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the budget bill Tuesday, but the Republican-controlled Senate and House overrode the veto.

Cooper has said his administration will also work to fight prison corruption.

“Governor Cooper has made it clear that criminal wrongdoing by prison guards and inmates cannot be tolerated and that prison safety is critical,” said Noelle Talley, a spokesperson for the governor. “He has charged the Department of Public Safety with looking closely at these issues and making sure prison guards are properly screened and trained, and hopes the legislature will recognize the need for fair pay and more guards.”

The Observer’s five-part investigation, published this spring, found that some officers run contraband rings inside prisons. Others have sex with inmates. Still others beat shackled prisoners, or collude with gang members to allow attacks.

The newspaper found that 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.

Prison officials have hired officers with histories of violence, crime and unethical behavior, failing to follow the examples of states that more thoroughly vet job applicants.

The state also fails to give new officers the training they need, many current and former employees say.

Some states require that officers get more than two months of training before they begin working. But in North Carolina, new officers usually begin work after a week-long orientation, and then must wait months for their four-week basic training.

‘Stem the flow of contraband’

Lawmakers are asking the Department of Public Safety to turn over the following information to the joint oversight committee:

▪ The number of prison employees disciplined, demoted or separated from service due to personal misconduct during the past five years.

▪ The number of employees charged with committing crimes in the prisons.

▪ The department’s process for checking the backgrounds of job applicants.

▪ The length of time that new officers are typically on the job before they get their basic training.

▪ The methods used to prevent delivery of contraband to prisoners, and an evaluation of how effective those methods have been.

David Guice, the state’s chief deputy secretary of adult corrections and juvenile justice, said prison leaders will provide lawmakers any information they request.

The drugs and cellphones smuggled by employees spur gang violence, allow prisoners to orchestrate crimes outside prison walls and cause many inmates to leave prison as addicted as when they went in.

At Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham, a prison sergeant reportedly provided cellphones to a gang leader. From a cell in solitary confinement, the inmate used a phone to arrange a 2014 murder-for-hire plot against a prosecutor’s father.

“One of the things that jumped out to me is this issue of contraband,” said Berger, the Senate leader. “Once we find out what the current methods are (for keeping contraband out of prisons), perhaps the oversight committee will make some recommendations to help stem the flow of contraband into the prisons.”

In a statement to the Observer earlier this month, Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks said he has ordered a thorough review of hiring practices. He said that the prisons will soon launch a program to randomly drug test employees – and that they are looking at how to increase their use of dogs that can detect drugs and cellphones.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex