Prison staff shortages, dangers have climbed. ‘We need help,’ officer says.

Staff shortages in North Carolina’s prisons have climbed to dangerous levels over the past two years, despite state efforts to attract more officers, an Observer analysis found.

Last month, 16 percent of the state’s prison officer positions were vacant – up from 9 percent in January 2016, state figures show.

Better staffing might have saved the lives of the five prison employees who died in attacks this year at two Eastern North Carolina prisons, experts and officers told the Observer.

State figures show that in April, when Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed at Bertie Correctional Institution, roughly one of every five correctional officer positions there was vacant.

And at Pasquotank Correctional Institution – where four employees were fatally injured during a failed escape attempt on Oct. 12 – the staffing problems have been even worse. In October, more than 28 percent of officer positions were vacant – up from 17 percent three years earlier.

Just one prison officer oversaw more than 30 inmates inside Pasquotank’s sewing plant when the violence erupted, according to two officers who responded to the crisis.

Prison employees Veronica Darden, Justin Smith, Wendy Shannon and Geoff Howe died. Eight more were injured. Inmates stabbed the employees with scissors and beat them with hammers, according to a prison disciplinary report.

The staff shortages leave prison officers vastly outnumbered, experts and officers say. That makes it easier for inmates to acquire weapons, cellphones and other dangerous contraband – and easier for them to attack.

Anthony Gangi, an advocate for prison officers, said the high number of vacancies in North Carolina could result in more deaths and injuries.

“Ultimately it could lead to an unsecure facility. And an unsecure facility is a threat to the public,” said Gangi, who hosts a radio talk show about corrections. “The inmates know what we do. They know what areas we’re deficient in. And they’ll take advantage of that.”

State prison officials say that since 2016, they have significantly increased the number of officers they hire. The trouble is that the prisons have been losing even more officers than they are hiring. The state’s low unemployment rate, now 4.1 percent, has meant fewer job seekers and more available jobs, they say.

But prison leaders say they are making progress and are now close to hiring as many officers as they lose each month.

“Retention is one of the key areas that the department is focusing on because retaining quality trained employees impacts safety,” a Department of Public Safety spokesman wrote in response to questions from the Observer.

State prison officials refuse to say how many staff were on duty at Pasquotank and Bertie on the days of the fatal attacks. They contended those numbers constitute “sensitive public security information.”

But the state has released monthly staffing figures, which show that the problems aren’t confined to Pasquotank and Bertie. Since January 2016, the officer vacancy rates have risen in 51 of the state’s 55 prisons.

Dozens of current and former officers told the Observer about dangerous staff shortages. Some said that shortages are so severe that a single officer must occasionally supervise more than 100 inmates.

One longtime prison officer, who like many others asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing his job, said that at the medium-security prison where he works, two officers are sometimes put in charge of monitoring 200 to 300 inmates on the recreation yard.

“The idea that inmates are always under someone's supervision is long gone in the state of North Carolina,” he said. “People could be killed. Just like is happening already. The solution is more staff. We need help.”

A prayer to Jesus

On March 12, 2014, inmate Michael Kerr died of thirst. For five days before his death, the mentally ill prisoner had been kept handcuffed in solitary confinement at Alexander Correctional Institution, about 60 miles north of Charlotte.

The death helped focus attention on the prison system’s staffing challenges. Some prison workers were fired after the incident but were later reinstated. A judge, in reinstating one employee, said the evidence showed that “inadequate staffing and high caseloads” among mental health staff at the prison affected their ability to document treatment.

In 2015, N.C. lawmakers approved a series of pay raises for prison officers, whose salaries had been frozen for years.

Around the same time, prison leaders expanded their recruiting efforts, holding hiring events and partnering with schools and military bases to fill jobs.

But since then, the staffing problems only got worse. Since December 2014, the officer vacancy rates at the state’s five largest maximum-security prisons have climbed from about 13 percent to about 16.5 percent. (The Observer’s analysis does not include officers who are on leave or who miss work for other reasons.)

Why are the jobs so hard to fill? Officers, prison officials and experts point to several reasons.

Many maximum-security prisons – such as Pasquotank and Bertie – are located in rural areas, where recruiting can be difficult.

The acute dangers of prison work, meanwhile, make the jobs a hard sell for recruiters, officers and experts say.

In a recent survey by researchers at East Carolina University, about 90 percent of North Carolina prison officers and supervisors who responded agreed with the assertion that in their jobs, “a person stands a good chance of getting hurt.”

“(Officers) are quitting in droves because reality is hitting them in the face,” said another longtime officer who asked not to be identified. “They’re getting stabbed. They’re getting assaulted.

“I just say a prayer to Jesus every day when I go to work. Because I don’t know if I’m going home.”

Like most of the state’s maximum-security prisons, Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Polkton, N.C. has wrestled with staff shortages in recent years. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

‘Big-time danger’

Given the dangers of the job, the pay remains inadequate, many officers say.

The raises approved by the legislature have brought the average salaries for officers at maximum-security prisons to about $38,000 – up from about $31,000 in 2015. But the current pay in North Carolina is still about $8,000 less than the national average for prison officers and jailers.

Many other states are also struggling to keep their prisons fully staffed. South Carolina’s vacancy rate, 22.5 percent, is even worse than North Carolina’s 16 percent rate.

But the Observer found that the vacancy rates are considerably lower in a number of states that offer better pay for officers. Among the states with lower rates: Pennsylvania and California, where the vacancy rates are about 3 percent, and New Jersey, where the rate is 1.5 percent.

North Carolina officials know that it’s not enough simply to hire officers. They have to find ways to make them want to stay. While the state typically hires about 1,800 to 2,000 prison officers per year, it usually loses about that many as well.

In the recent East Carolina study, 39 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to quit.

Over the past two years, the Observer has interviewed dozens of current and former prison officers who said the dangers, low pay, long hours and poor working conditions make it a job that few want.

To cope with vacancies, prison leaders have asked officers to work many hours of overtime. That leads to more staff burnout and turnover, prison officials acknowledge.

Several officers interviewed recently said they believed prison leaders have placed too little emphasis on making prisons safe and secure.

Gail Boyd, a former prison lieutenant who retired from Bertie Correctional last year, said the persistent staff shortages meant that by the time she left, officers were rarely searching inmates’ bunks or cells.

And it meant that officers were vastly outnumbered.

“It puts officers in big-time danger,” she said.

Disenchanted with their jobs

Researchers at East Carolina University recently surveyed more than 1,200 N.C. prison officers and supervisors. Here's what they found:

▪ 39 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to quit.

▪ 89.5 percent agreed with the assertion that in their jobs, “a person stands a good chance of getting hurt.”

▪ 22 percent said they were moderately or extremely satisfied with their pay and benefits.

▪ 26 percent said they “find real enjoyment" in their jobs.

▪ 71 percent said the state did not work to retain staff.

Ames Alexander