Weaker job screening could make NC prisons more dangerous, critics say

North Carolina prison officials will no longer conduct psychological interviews on all correctional officer applicants.

Officials said the move would help staff the state’s prions, though critics called the change dangerous and a violation of criminal justice standards.

The new process returns the Department of Public Safety to the way it screened job applicants for 18 years ending in 2015.

It calls for a psychological test on all applicants and face-to-face psychological interviews with only a fraction of those who apply.

Tracy Little, deputy secretary for prisons, said the move would allow the state to hire officers more quickly and save it money - possibly $1 million a year.

“We are trying to make it easier for the applicants to get through the hiring process,” Little told lawmakers during a recent hearing on prison safety.

Tracy Litte, NC deputy secretary for prisons NC DPS

She said applicants would be interviewed and hired by local prison leaders and seen by local medical providers for physical exams rather than going to regional offices. About 250 applicants a year would undergo face-to-face psychological interviews.

“Safety and security are our top priority and this screening process will enable us to maintain our standard of recruiting and selecting high-quality applicants,” Little said in a statement to the Observer.

Corruption and murder inside NC prisons

North Carolina’s prisons employ about 7,000 correctional officers. But the state had an officer vacancy rate of 18 percent as of December, records show.

Bertie Correctional Institution was short-staffed in April 2017 when Sgt. Meghan Callahan was allegedly attacked and killed by an inmate.

And the sewing plant at Pasquotank Correctional Institution was short-staffed when four inmates tried to escape the facility in October 2017. Four prison workers were fatally wounded during the escape attempt.

Since 2015, The FMRT Group - a psychological and medical screening service - has screened applicants for the state’s prisons. The group’s contract ended in April.

FMRT leaders interviewed about 10,000 would-be officers during that time, said Elizabeth Morris, the company’s chief executive officer.

She said a half-hour interview with a trained psychologist can shine light on potentially dangerous behaviors that a test wouldn’t flag. In recent years, the FMRT Group identified applicants with gang ties, financial problems and histories of drug abuse, she said.

Morris said 11 percent of applicants were found to be psychologically not suitable for prison work. Seven percent were found to be medically not suitable.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said he was concerned the prison system was abandoning an effective screening process.

“It sounds like it just won’t be the same level of evaluation,” he said.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham N.C. General Assembly

At the hearing last week, Morris told lawmakers the state is returning to a “diminished hiring practice.”

She said failing to conduct a psychological evaluation of every applicant violates North Carolina’s criminal justice education standards and standards used by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“This process will lead to injuries and harm to both correctional officers and inmates,” she said.

John Schwade, a retired prison psychologist, agreed. He noted that the state’s prisons were hit by several high-profile corruption scandals in the years before The FMRT Group began screening applicants.

In 2012, an inmate at Lanesboro Correctional Institution was killed during a gang fight.

Surveillance video shows two of the attackers meeting with a unit manager shortly before the attack. After the attack, video captures the manager gesturing toward the killer. He stretched his arms above his head and then lowered them to cover his mouth.

State investigators and the killer’s attorney believe the prison official was telling the inmate to keep quiet.

In March 2014, inmate Michael Kerr died of dehydration after lying for five days handcuffed and in his own feces and urine. The state paid Kerr’s estate $2.5 million.

In April 2014, inmate Kelvin Melton, a leader of the United Blood Nation gang, used a contraband cellphone to orchestrate a plot to kill a prosecutor’s father. Melton directed the kidnapping from a maximum control cell in Polk Correctional Institution.

Inmates later testified that three officers supplied Melton with cellphones.

“Those are the people they were hiring,” Schwade said. “Considering what’s at stake, any screening — anything that has the chance of screening out even a few really bad apples — is worthwhile.”

Said Sen. Bob Steinburg, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety:

“We don’t want to go back to the way it was before.”

FMRT Group protests award

But if The FMRT Group hopes to sign a new contract, it first has to be allowed back into the bidding process.

Earlier this year, when the state asked for companies to bid on a new contract, FMRT Group officials submitted an alternative bid - offering to provide the same psychological services it has since 2015.

In February, department officials said The FMRT Group leaders violated the bidding process by handing out information on hiring standards to lawmakers. Little, the deputy secretary of prisons, also received the document.

As a result, DPS disqualified the group, citing a violation of confidentiality during the evaluation period.

Last month, the state awarded the screening contract to Cary Psychology. The FMRT Group officials have protested the award.

Haley Gingles, spokeswoman for The FMRT Group, said company leaders will soon meet with N.C. Department of Administration officials to discuss the protest.