In June 2015, Kendra Miller appeared to be in serious legal trouble.
The North Carolina prison worker was accused of having sex with a convicted murderer and helping him escape from Brown Creek Correctional Institution, 45 miles southeast of Charlotte.
Two and a half years later, prosecutors dropped the felony charges against Miller. In a deal, she was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge: obstruction of justice. She got no prison time. Instead, she was sentenced to six months of probation.
Like Miller, most employees who have been charged with committing crimes inside North Carolina’s prisons have received little or no punishment, according to a recent state review conducted at the request of lawmakers.
From 2013 through 2017, 57 prison employees were charged with crimes while on duty, according to the state Department of Public Safety’s review.
Four of the 57 employees got prison time. Thirty got probation. And most of the criminal charges — about 60 percent — were dismissed.
Cases involving prison employees can be difficult to prosecute because they often hinge on the testimony of unreliable inmates, said one district attorney whose office handled charges against a number of defendants.
In a series of stories published last year, the Observer showed that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside North Carolina’s prisons — and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it. Following the Observer’s investigation, state lawmakers asked DPS to provide information about employees charged with committing crimes on the job.
The large majority of the cases in the state review involved employees who allegedly tried to bring in contraband, such as drugs, cellphones or tobacco. Other employees were accused of having sex with inmates.
Among those arrested:
▪ James Dutton, Jr.: Fielding a tip, prison officials searched Dutton’s truck after he reported to his job as an officer at Brown Creek Correctional. Prison officials found two bags of synthetic marijuana inside Dutton’s truck that morning in 2013. Dutton was charged with possession of a controlled substance on prison premises. Four years later, the charge was dismissed, court records show.
▪ Kevin Swinney: In 2014, the former prison officer was accused of trying to smuggle four wrist watch cellphones into Lanesboro Correctional Institution. The phones were found tucked into hidden compartments inside bottles, according to a police report, and Swinney gave police a full confession. Charged with providing a cellphone to an inmate, Swinney received a year of probation.
▪ Julia Peeler: A former kitchen worker at Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury, Peeler was charged with having sex with an inmate in 2015. She was allowed to plead to a lesser offense — a crime against nature — and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Edenton, said that law-abiding prison employees are "afraid these (corrupt) officers ... are going to get them killed. They want them out."
After inmate Kristopher McNeil escaped from Brown Creek in June 2015, authorities alleged that Miller, a food service worker at the prison, had sex with McNeil, gave him a phone and helped him escape. Authorities later captured McNeil around 80 miles away, near the Davidson/Forsyth county line.
But prosecutors dismissed the felony charges against Miller earlier this year, allowing her to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge instead. Reece Saunders, the District Attorney for Anson and Richmond counties, declined to explain why, saying he does not discuss cases with the press.
Saunders’ staff is responsible for prosecuting crimes at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, in Polkton, which for years has been plagued by violence and corruption. (Lanesboro merged with Brown Creek, a nearby minimum-security prison in 2016.) Nine of the former employees on the state’s list worked at Lanesboro. Four of those suspects got probation and the other five saw all their charges dismissed.
Saunders said that prosecuting cases involving prison employees isn’t easy because they often hinge on the cooperation of inmates, who sometimes change their stories or refuse to testify. “You’re dealing with people who are inherently unreliable — prisoners,” Saunders said.
He recalled a case years ago involving a prison employee accused of having sex with inmates.
“The SBI thought they had the greatest case in the world,” Saunders said. “We had a probable cause hearing, and the inmates came into court and refused to even say their names. Wouldn’t testify at all.”
Saunders also said prosecutors should also consider this: Are officers at risk of getting hurt by other inmates because of their past careers? “Is alternative punishment more just than throwing somebody in with the wolves?” he asked.
Even when prosecutors do have sufficient evidence, state law usually doesn’t guarantee that a prison employee’s crimes will be punished by prison time. Providing drugs or cellphones to inmates, for instance, are low-level felonies in North Carolina. As a result, offenders with relatively clean criminal records can be sentenced to probation rather than prison time.
“Hopefully these folks who are prison guards don’t have criminal records,” Saunders said. “If they don’t have criminal records, they have to commit a pretty egregious crime to be eligible to go to prison under the sentencing laws.”
Observer finds more employees charged
In its review of prison employees charged with committing crimes on the job, the N.C. Department of Public Safety said it made a “good-faith effort” to verify information.
But the Observer found prison employees charged with crimes who were not listed in the state’s report.
▪ Evangeline Hunt: In March, the former Lanesboro officer was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for smuggling in drugs, tobacco and other contraband to an inmate.
▪ Scarlette King Hodges: The former prison officer smuggled in tobacco, drugs and other contraband into Lanesboro, according to court records. In 2016, Hodges pleaded guilty to extortion and was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
▪ Bishme Allah: A former officer at Raleigh’s women’s prison, Allah was charged in 2016 with engaging in sexual intercourse with two inmates – and sexual acts with two more. His case is pending.