NC prison staffing shortage 'critically dangerous'

Dangerous staff shortages have worsened inside some of North Carolina’s toughest prisons, despite recent state efforts to address the problem

By Ames Alexander and Gavin Off
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dangerous staff shortages have worsened inside some of North Carolina’s toughest prisons, despite recent state efforts to address the problem.

At Lanesboro Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison that has been plagued by violence, more than one of every three officer positions was vacant in January, new data shows. The vacancies there have climbed sharply over the past year.

This Friday, May 26, 2017 shows a unit inside Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
This Friday, May 26, 2017 shows a unit inside Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Prison leaders have tried temporary measures to maintain order. They’ve required many officers to work overtime, which can lead to burnout and fatigue.

And they’ve even forced some officers to drive 35 miles to work extra shifts at Lanesboro, southeast of Charlotte. But they scrapped that plan after officers at medium-custody Albemarle Correctional Institution complained about having to work at Lanesboro on their days off.

“They don’t want to go,” Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican whose district includes Albemarle, told a legislative panel last week. “They’re retiring. They’re quitting. They don't want to put their lives in danger.”

The overall officer vacancy rate at Albemarle Correctional has more than tripled – from 7 percent in January 2017 to 25 percent a year later, state records show.

Now, prison leaders are trying a different approach at Lanesboro: They’re sending in members of the Prison Emergency Response Team, which is made up of officers from various prisons.

About 37 percent of positions at Lanesboro were vacant in January, up from about 22 percent a year earlier, according to N.C. Department of Public Safety records.

One officer at Lanesboro, who asked not to be named because she fears retribution, said some officers are working nine straight days or consecutive 16-hour shifts. The prison is so short-staffed, she said, that two officers are sometimes left in charge of overseeing 200 inmates in the cafeteria. In the past, one former officer said, there were twice that many officers stationed in the chow hall.

If a gang battle broke out, staff members could do little to stop it, the current officer said.

“I think it’s critically dangerous,” she said of the prison’s staffing shortages.

In January, the overall vacancy rate at the state’s maximum-security prisons was about 22 percent – slightly higher than it was a year earlier. (The vacancy rates calculated by the Observer include both empty positions and the positions of officers who were on leaves of absence.)

But the vacancy rates were significantly higher in some of the most dangerous prisons.

At Pasquotank Correctional Institution, where four employees were fatally attacked during an October escape attempt, the overall vacancy rate in January was about 37 percent. And at Bertie Correctional, where a prison sergeant was reportedly beaten to death by an inmate wielding a fire extinguisher last spring, the overall vacancy rate in January was about 31 percent.

Better staffing might have saved the lives of five prison employees who were reportedly attacked by inmates last year, experts and officers told the Observer.

‘Record levels of vacancies’

In many prisons across the state, prison leaders have also relied heavily on overtime pay to fill vacant positions. In a Feb. 20 memo issued to staff, Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter wrote:

“Unfortunately, we are experiencing record levels of vacancies … As you know, we have mandatory minimum staffing patterns in order to maintain a safe and secure environment. With the aforementioned vacancies, we will be asking a little bit more of each of you as it related to overtime.”

Overtime pay to the state’s prison officers increased from $4.2 million in 2011 to nearly $22 million in 2016, the last full year for which the Observer has data.

“Overtime dollars will give you a great indication about how your facility is staffed,” Larry Reid, of the National Institute of Corrections, said at a legislative meeting in Raleigh last week. “Do you have enough staff to operate? If your overtime is high, that’s a great indicator.”

‘Tough choices’

Prison leaders said they are taking steps to improve staffing. They’re moving inmates to ease the burden on some short-staffed prisons. They’ve redeployed four officers to work full-time on recruiting. And they’re holding career fairs to attract military members, veterans and others.

But the dangers persist. On Feb. 20, two officers at Lanesboro were slashed by an inmate with a homemade weapon. Both officers were treated at a nearby medical facility, and one required stitches.

At Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, where 28 percent of positions were vacant in January, staff shortages prevent officers from searching cells, said one current officer who asked not to be named because he fears retaliation.

“Fewer staff means there is a higher chance of a riot, a higher chance of an assault,” he said. “And if there is (an incident), you don’t have the numbers to go in there. Instead of storming them, you're waiting for people to show up.”

©2018 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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