After a deadly year in NC prisons, here are reforms officials want to make

COs in the prisons often lack backup, panic alarms and body armor that could protect them from being stabbed

By Will Doran
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Most of the inmates in North Carolina's state prisons are there for the most serious types of felony convictions — the type of convictions given to violent criminals, sex offenders and big-time drug dealers.

But the correctional officers in charge of watching over those inmates often lack backup; none have panic alarms worn on their bodies; and they lack body armor that could protect them from being stabbed. They are equipped with mace, and their radios have alarms. But many of those radios are broken, and the state has trouble hiring radio technicians to fix them. And even when they are working the radios aren't always able to get a signal out through the thick prison walls.

Those were just some of the issues raised Tuesday by a new group that's supposed to find ways to reform North Carolina's prison system.

The members of that group — a mix of current and former prison workers, state employee advocates and outside experts — were asked to solve the many issues facing the state's overcrowded and understaffed prisons after the particularly deadly year that state prison workers faced in 2017.

In April, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed inside Bertie Correctional Institution. Authorities say an inmate there set a fire and then beat Callahan to death with the fire extinguisher she brought to put out the flames.

Then, on Oct. 12, four more employees were fatally injured during an escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Inmates stabbed employees with scissors and beat them with hammers, said prison workers who called 911. Those attacks took the lives of prison officers Wendy Shannon and Justin Smith, along with sewing plant manager Veronica Darden and maintenance worker Geoffrey Howe.

The new group, which is under the Department of Public Safety and is called the Prison Reform Advisory Board, will meet at least three more times this year. It's led by Beth Austin, the first female general of the North Carolina National Guard, who retired from the military in December.

Discussion at the inaugural meeting Tuesday ranged across the board, from mental health care to early release policies and how to punish violent inmates. But the main focus was on how the state can hire more prison workers, convince them not to quit, and keep them all safe and properly trained.

"Heroes need help," said Erik Hooks, the head of the Department of Public Safety.

Kenneth Lassiter became the head of the state prison system last April. He said that even though North Carolina's prison population has been steadily falling for the last decade, prisons still have too many people in them. Plus there are more than 2,500 vacant jobs at the state's 55 prisons, and a recent hiring spree hasn't been able to stop the number of empty jobs from growing ever larger.

"We're losing about 150 (prison workers) a month but we're gaining about 135 or 140," Lassiter said.

He attributed some of the losses to low pay — starting salary for a correctional officer ranges from about $30,000 to $34,000 a year — as well as the location of most prisons in rural, sparsely populated areas. Another issue is retirement, which will continue since there are more prison employees in their 50s than any other decade.

But it's not just an ever-shrinking workforce that has prison officials worried. Lassiter said the state is also now trying to address a lack of training and equipment.

The prison system is training 300 experienced officers to serve as mentors to new hires. And there's a push to move some training from local community colleges onto prison grounds — which might cut down on the number of people the state hires and pays to train who then quit a week or two into the job because they weren't ready for the reality of working inside a prison.

Stanley Drewery, the president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, sits on the committee and said he likes that idea.

"They just feel like they go to training and then get thrown to the wolves," he said.

Pamela Cashwell, an attorney and chief deputy secretary at DPS, said they're making progress: About nine months ago the state had 700 correctional officers working inside prisons who had never received even basic training, but now that number is down to just 25.

"It's been a monumental task to do that," she said.

The equipment in state prisons — or lack thereof — was also concerning to officials on the reform committee.

The state recently bought 13,000 stab-resistant shirts, which would be enough for all prison employees to better protect against inmates' shanks. But the first shipment of shirts had to be sent back due to "sizing issues," said Cashwell, who added that problems outside the state's control might now put the whole thing on hold.

"There are apparently now issues nationally with getting Kevlar because, again, nothing is easy," she said.

However, she said, the state has been able to get batons issued to officers inside medium-security prisons in addition to high-security prisons. And officials are hoping to get wi-fi routers into prisons, which would allow employees to be issued panic alarms similar to Life Alert buttons. They only work with an internet connection, and the state blocks cellular data around prisons to try to foil inmates with contraband phones, so wi-fi is the only option.

The kinds of solutions the reform committee is beginning to explore won't be cheap.

It will take "a lot of support from the General Assembly and from the public to help us turn this ship," Cashwell said.

©2018 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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