‘Everybody dozes’: Prison officers sleep on the job, putting lives at risk

Toward the end of her 18-hour shift, prison officer Anita Merritt fell asleep while guarding an inmate in a hospital bed.

The prisoner should have had his hands restrained but didn’t, according to a superintendent’s letter. Merritt, an officer at Pender Correctional Institution, was fired for the 2016 incident at UNC Hillsborough Hospital.

“Your failure to remain alert could have jeopardized the safety and the security of the hospital staff, visitors and other patients within the facility,” the dismissal letter said.

Anita Merritt
Anita Merritt

Merritt was among more than 45 North Carolina prison officers who were fired for sleeping on the job since 2012, a Charlotte Observer investigation found. Some dozed inside hospitals with loaded guns at their sides while inmates they were supposed to be guarding sat nearby. Others were found sleeping in control rooms where officers watch inmates, or in vehicles used to monitor prison fence lines.

It’s a problem that endangers officers and inmates, as well as the public, experts say.

“Correctional officers are the front line for safety and security in any prison, and a sleeping officer is no better than no officer at all,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “That's a tremendous risk to the safety and security of prisoners, the staff and potentially for the community.”

State officials have contributed to the problem. Prison leaders have burned out some officers by forcing them to work dangerous amounts of overtime, current and former staffers say. And pay for prison officers – which is set by state lawmakers – remains so low that many work second jobs, a fact that has made a perilous situation more so, current and former officers told the Observer.

Even after recent salary increases approved by the legislature, North Carolina pays officers at maximum-security prisons an average of about $38,000 annually – about $8,000 less than the national average.

Sleeping on the job is just one of many things that endanger prison employees and inmates. Previously, the Observer has reported on the threats created by staff shortages, corruption and equipment failures. It has been a deadly year for state prison workers. Five have died in brutal attacks, and state officials have announced a number of changes to improve safety.

N.C. Prisons Director Kenneth Lassiter said he expects officers to remain alert at all times, and if anyone doesn’t, “appropriate action up to and including dismissal is taken.”

Merritt told the Observer that she knew how dangerous it could be for officers to fall asleep. So she’d often pinch her neck, stretch or use other tricks to keep herself awake.

Still, she acknowledged, that didn’t always work. Many officers were simply exhausted, she said. Drained from working frequent overtime shifts. Worn out from working second – and sometimes third – jobs to make ends meet.

“Everybody dozes off,” Merritt said. “We’d shake people, put stuff in their nose, trying to keep them up.”

‘Danger of death’

In interviews with the newspaper, more than a dozen former and current staff members said it was common for officers to sleep on the job.

Among those fired for sleeping:

▪ Sgt. Carl Shabazz was supposed to be guarding an inmate at a Raleigh hospital in November 2015 when a nurse found him “asleep and snoring,” according to his dismissal letter. Shabazz was armed with a gun.

“Any number of things could have gone wrong,” the letter read. “… This could have been a dangerous situation for you … and the hospital staff.”

Shabazz told the Observer he never fell asleep and that he was targeted because he is a Muslim.

More than a dozen former and current staff members told the Observer it was common for N.C. prison officers to sleep on the job. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

▪ Levi Woody, an officer at Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton, was found asleep six times from November to December 2016, according to his dismissal letter.

“I know I need to be awake and alert to do my job,” Woody told investigators. “There’s no excuse for this.”

▪ In January, Central Prison officer Cathy Callahan – armed with a .40-caliber handgun – fell asleep while she was supposed to be guarding an inmate at UNC Memorial Hospital, according to her dismissal letter. An hour later, after Callahan woke up and took a break, hospital officers found her loaded gun unsecured in a public restroom.

“Your actions … created a potential danger of death or serious injury for the safety of the public, patients, hospital employees, law enforcement officials and yourself, as well as the inmate,” the dismissal letter states.

Callahan disputes that she fell asleep, according to Michael Byrne, her attorney. He said Callahan may have left her gun behind because the bullet-proof vest the prison issued her was so large that she didn’t realize the gun wasn’t with her when she left the room.

Overworked with overtime

At some prisons, more than one of every four officer positions is vacant.

As a result, many officers become exhausted from working extensive overtime, current and former staff members say. Statewide, prison officers were paid nearly $22 million in overtime last year – almost triple what it was in 2010.

Some officers worked an average of more than 20 hours of overtime each week, data show. Others more than doubled their salaries with overtime.

One officer at Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham, earned about $30,000 a year in 2016 but took home more than $45,000 extra from overtime work, an Observer analysis found.

Requiring officers to work overtime “can be bad for officer wellness, and leads to employees falling asleep on the job,” according to a recent study of the state prisons by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

Pamela Walker, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said the prisons try to distribute overtime in a way that does not unfairly burden employees. She said the prisons often ask for volunteers. This helps officers who have obligations outside of work, she said.

But Angela Smith, a former officer at Tabor Correctional Institution, said overtime was often required.

She said it was common for officers to start work at 5:15 a.m. and to be kept on duty until 10 p.m. Officers who refused to stay were threatened with discipline.

“It wasn’t voluntary at all,” Smith said of working extra hours. “It got to be ridiculous.”

And dangerous.

After 16 hours on the job, reaction time slows. Staffers can nod off.

“The inmate knows,” Smith said. “They know who’s been there since five in the morning. They watch you more than you watch them.”

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038