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How NC prisons make life too easy for officers who smuggle drugs, cellphones

How NC prison officers fuel corruption and abuse

A Charlotte Observer investigation found that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside North Carolina prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it.
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A Charlotte Observer investigation found that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside North Carolina prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it.

North Carolina does not take key steps to prevent state employees from carrying drugs, cellphones and tobacco into prisons.

The state doesn’t frisk correctional officers when they report for duty. It doesn’t use technology that has foiled contraband smugglers elsewhere. And it allows employees to bring their lunches to work, giving them a way to hide illegal goods.

Not all contraband is smuggled in by staff members, of course. Friends and family members of inmates sneak it in during visits, throw it over prison fences and even fly it in with drones.

But at the state’s maximum-security prisons, employees bring in most of the contraband, prison leaders acknowledge.

In court records and interviews with dozens of inmates and officers, the Observer found that some staff have regularly smuggled in large quantities of drugs, tobacco and cellphones, pocketing hundreds of dollars per shipment. This endangers prisoners, honest officers and the public, experts say.

Since 2012, more than 50 North Carolina prison employees have been charged with bringing – or attempting to bring – contraband into prisons.

While staff members have to go through a metal detector, current and former employees say there’s little to prevent officers from smuggling in non-metallic items and even some phones. How?

Officers remove the small metal parts from a phone or team up with security officers, who allow the contraband to pass through even if an alarm sounds.

Prison officials rarely bring in drug-sniffing dogs or even ask officers to turn out their pockets when they enter the prison each day, many current and former officers say.

“I rarely ever saw those dogs,” said Phillip Boney, a former officer at Lanesboro Correctional Institution. “Why are the dogs not in the gate house (where officers enter the prison)? That would deter a whole lot of stuff.”

Prison officials enter and exit Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Polkton. At least eight Lanesboro employees were caught bringing in drugs, cellphones and tobacco from early 2013 to early 2017. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

In some states, prison leaders are more aggressive about rooting out contraband.

In Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia – among the states with stricter rules than North Carolina – officers are subject to pat-down searches as they enter prison.

The Pennsylvania and Indiana prison systems regularly use ion detection scanning – a technology used in airports to detect explosives – to look for drug residue on officers reporting for duty.

Prisons in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia do not allow officers to bring personal lunchboxes – containers that employees have used to help conceal drugs and cellphones.

Some states that do not allow lunchboxes provide workers with free meals or let them eat on prison grounds outside the building.

If North Carolina officials are serious about reducing contraband, they should search all staff entering all prisons, said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News. “When you have people going in and out of prison who aren’t adequately searched … that’s where you get the majority of the contraband,” he said.

N.C. prison leaders say they’re expanding their tools for fighting contraband. The Department of Public Safety has received regulatory approval to use four full-body scanners, and expects to begin putting them to work this summer. The department also plans to buy equipment that will pinpoint the location of contraband cellphones in four prisons.

Department leaders also hope to begin accurately tracking the prevalence of contraband found inside each prison. That’s something they can’t do now.

In response to requests from the Observer, the state did supply some contraband data for its prisons. But the numbers don’t reflect reality.

One example: State data show Alexander Correctional Institution, north of Charlotte, confiscated three weapons in 2011. But local law enforcement records show that prison officials found more than 60 weapons that year.

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038