Special Reports

Lawmakers decry ‘shocking’ prison corruption uncovered by the Observer

A correctional officer at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, in Polkton, works in the prison’s gatehouse, where employees report to work each day. Employees smuggle in most of the contraband that finds its way into North Carolina’s maximum-security prisons, the Observer found.
A correctional officer at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, in Polkton, works in the prison’s gatehouse, where employees report to work each day. Employees smuggle in most of the contraband that finds its way into North Carolina’s maximum-security prisons, the Observer found. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Calling the findings of a Charlotte Observer investigation “shocking” and “intolerable,” North Carolina lawmakers this week said the state must escalate its battle against prison corruption.

Senate leader Phil Berger said he will call for a legislative inquiry. And House Speaker Tim Moore said lawmakers will work with prison leaders to address “the disturbing issues identified by this investigation.”

The Observer’s investigation found 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. Prison officers frequently team up with inmates on crimes that endanger staff members, inmates and the public.

The newspaper’s five-part investigation found that some officers run lucrative contraband rings inside prisons. Others have sex with inmates. Still others beat shackled prisoners, or team up with gang members to allow attacks.

Gov. Roy Cooper has directed Secretary of Public Safety Erik Hooks to identify ways to combat the problems identified by the Observer.

“Contraband smuggling and other crimes committed or enabled by prison employees cannot be tolerated,” said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the governor.

In a statement to the Observer on Thursday, Hooks said he has ordered a thorough review of hiring practices “to see what is working well and what needs to be revamped.” He said the prisons will soon introduce a program to randomly drug test employees, and are looking at how to increase their use of dogs that can detect drugs and cellphones.

“I expect state prisons to operate safely, effectively and ethically, and I'm looking closely at how to improve prison operations,” Hooks said in his statement. “I have zero tolerance for misconduct and I know that there are many hard-working, ethical prison employees dedicated to serving honorably who share my view.”

Lawmakers: Changes are needed

Lawmakers interviewed by the Observer said improvement is needed in several areas:

▪ Background checks for new employees. The Observer found that prison officials have hired officers with histories of crime, violence and unethical behavior, failing to follow the examples of states that more thoroughly vet job applicants.

One correctional officer was fired from his post in Vermont after he pressed a gun to a man’s head so hard that his ear bled. Four months later, North Carolina hired him to work as a prison officer.

Said Berger, a Republican from Eden: “It’s fairly clear that at least for some folks, they either haven’t done the background checks or they’ve ignored what was there.”

▪ Pay for officers. North Carolina pays its prison officers an average of about $35,000 a year at maximum-security prisons – less than most animal control officers. Nationally, most correctional officers and jailers are paid far more – an average of about $47,000.

That makes it difficult for the state to attract high-caliber job applicants, experts say. It also makes some employees more susceptible to corruption.

“$10,000 in your pocket to somebody who makes 30-something a year, that’s a significant temptation to folks,” said Rep. Joe John, D-Wake.

Starting in 2015, state lawmakers boosted pay for prison officers. But Berger and other legislators said they believe further pay increases are needed.

▪ Training for officers. The Observer found that many new prison officers are on the job for months before they receive their basic training, where they learn crucial skills, such as how to deal with violent and manipulative inmates.

Hooks said his department is working to develop a new training approach that would ensure that every newly hired officer gets trained within the first two weeks on the job.

“They can’t retain good officers,” said Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “They've got to do something else. If they do proper training from the beginning, it helps them retain their employees.”

▪ Keeping contraband out of prisons. Employees smuggle in most of the illicit drugs and cellphones in the state’s maximum-security prisons.

In the past five years, more than 50 North Carolina prison employees have been charged with bringing contraband into prisons, the Observer found. Some inmates and experts say it’s easier to find drugs in prison than on the street.

“These are shocking and intolerable findings of systemic failures within our state prisons, particularly matters of corruption among prison officials,” Moore, a Republican from Kings Mountain, said in a statement to the Observer.

‘Significant concerns’

Since 2012, at least 70 state employees have been criminally charged for offenses inside the prisons, the Observer found. More than 400 others have been fired for on-the-job misconduct.

“I was shocked that (corruption) was going on at that level,” Cunningham said. “In every profession, you’re going to get a couple of people who are not doing the right thing. But that number … that’s troubling.

“Oversight and accountability are just not there.”

In a letter to lawmakers on Thursday, state prison leader David Guice wrote that the incidents highlighted by the Observer “raised significant concerns about what takes place behind prison walls.”

But prison leaders are addressing the problems through a variety of measures, wrote Guice, the state’s chief deputy of adult corrections and juvenile justice.

The state assigns new hires career-readiness coaches to help them adjust to working in prisons. It created a new intelligence unit to uncover criminal activity. And North Carolina is one of the first states to provide officers with special training on how to de-escalate encounters with hostile inmates.

Most correctional employees serve honestly and professionally, Guice said, and state prison leaders handle misconduct appropriately.

“Let there be no question, the department’s leadership does not tolerate abuse of offenders and/or criminal activity among staff,” Guice wrote.

System ‘in crisis’

The Observer’s stories also stirred outrage among others, including civil rights advocates and relatives of inmates.

“These disturbing reports about North Carolina’s prisons describe a system that is in crisis and in dire need of drastic reform. North Carolina is holding prisoners in conditions that threaten their health, safety, and human dignity on a daily basis,” said Irena Como, a staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina.

Said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project: “Do we want people who have been improved during their time in prison? Or do we want people who have essentially gone to graduate school of criminality where some of the leading criminals are on staff?”

Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the criminal justice reform group NC CURE, said “The Observer has shined a light on the hidden atrocities taking place in our back yards.”

Forbes said she has received about 30 emails and 20 phone calls from family members who read the Observer’s investigation. The most common reaction among family members, she said, was shock.

“Having light shined on these atrocities has really, really shaken these families,” Forbes said. “I’ve even had one say, ‘Now I know my (inmate son) was not lying to me.’ ”

Robert Webster, a former state prison captain, said he has talked to three current prison employees, and one former one about the stories. Like him, he said, they all think the stories “hit the nail on the head.”

“I don’t think it’s just a bunch of disgruntled employees you’ve been talking to,” Webster said.

Martin Horn, a former secretary of corrections in Pennsylvania who lectures at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said North Carolina could learn from states that have found ways to improve oversight and fight prison corruption.

“You can continue to do what you've been doing and you're going to get what you got,” Horn said. “At some point you have to get off the merry-go-round.”

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

Gavin Off: 704-358-6038

One expert’s suggestions for reform

Martin Horn is a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and former head of Pennsylvania’s prisons. Here’s what Horn said the N.C. General Assembly and the Department of Public Safety could do to improve its prisons:

General Assembly

▪ Increase correctional officer salaries and expedite training.

▪ Create an independent citizen oversight board to inspect prisons and report findings to lawmakers. The board’s findings should be public information.

▪ Create an inspector general’s office to inspect prisons and investigate allegations of corruption, officer misconduct and mistreatment of inmates.

▪ Create a toll-free line for citizens and officers to make complaints.

Department of Public Safety

▪ Conduct its own internal assessment of corruption

▪ Ask an outside organization with prison expertise to analyze staffing

▪ Publish monthly reports on inmate grievances, uses of force, suicides, homicides and contraband. These reports should be public information.