A wave of gang violence led to lockdowns at six North Carolina prisons earlier this year, officials confirmed Thursday, an unusually strong response that illustrates how serious the situation was.
All but one of the prisons has returned to normal operations. Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg, where the violence began, has been on lockdown off and on since January. It has recently eased restrictions and is transitioning to regular operations, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
State officials are reluctant to discuss what happened in detail, out of concern for encouraging further violence. They said that in January six of the state's 12 prisons with high-security inmates were placed on temporary lockdown "due to a serious gang-related situation."
Scotland was the first, where inmate-on-inmate gang violence broke out. Then in the following days lockdowns were also imposed across the state at the Maury, Lanesboro, Pasquotank, Bertie and Foothills prisons out of an "abundance of caution" to determine "if there was potentially coordinated gang activity." Public Safety spokeswoman Pamela Walker provided the statement on Thursday in response to inquiries from The News & Observer.
None of the lockdowns lasted more than seven days, she said. Walker declined to identify the gangs or disclose further information.
While lockdowns are common, this was unusually widespread. Lockdowns are used to temporarily stabilize fights or larger outbreaks of violence, or to search for contraband. In a lockdown, inmates are confined to their cells, including for meals and medical attention. Showers and exercise are prohibited or restricted.
Prison administrators have to balance the benefits of using lockdowns against the potential for creating more problems if people are locked down for extended periods.
Some prisoners expressed ongoing frustration over the protracted lockdowns during the past couple of months, Neal Richards of the Chapel Hill Prison Books Collective said.
Richards said his organization collected prisoners' complaints on its blog. Inmates complained of guards and inmates being attacked, and said the ensuing crackdown sparked hunger strikes and inmates intentionally flooding their cells.
"It was very unusual," Richards said. "The prisoners I talked with said it was the biggest lockdown they'd heard of or experienced."
State prison officials have been trying to address gang-related problems for many years.
In 2005, a special gang section was established in Foothills Correctional Institution, where 192 identified gang members are housed. That only represents a portion of the known gang members in the state's prisons.
In that unit, gang members are put through programs that try to persuade them to renounce their gang affiliations.