The Charlotte Observer has updated its dismaying reports on the staff shortages in North Carolina’s state prisons. Staff shortages were cited by officials as contributing to the deaths of five prison employees who died in attacks this year at two Eastern North Carolina prisons.
The update is equally dismaying. The Observer found that last month, 16 percent of the state’s positions for prison officers were vacant, up from 9 percent in January of last year.
The frightening thing about this is that staff shortages are something inmates are aware of, and that some might try to take advantage of in terms of smuggling contraband or planning escapes. And what happens when the rules are broken or are about to be broken? Guards and other staff members who try to enforce the rules are put in harm’s way.
In a failed escape attempt in October, four employees of Pasquotank Correctional Institution were fatally injured. But more than 28 percent of officer positions were vacant, and that was up from 17 percent three years earlier.
State officials are trying, but they’re frustrated. The number of officers hired has increased since 2016, but more officers also are leaving, often for safer work at a time when the unemployment rate is low.
And even though the average salary at a maximum security prison is $38,000, up from $31,000 two years ago, the figure still is substantially below the national average for officers and jailers, $8,000 below in fact. State officials are kidding themselves if they think that low figure isn’t a major reason they’re having problems filling the jobs. Actually, prison officials probably well know that, but higher salaries are a tough sell on Jones Street.
It’s unfortunate that it seems some kind of catastrophic event has to happen to get the attention of lawmakers and the public on what is a true crisis.
When nearly 90 percent of people in a certain kind of job (in this case, prison work) say in a survey that “a person stands a good chance of getting hurt” on the job, that’s just unacceptable. And nearly 40 percent of the officers and supervisors said in that same survey that they wanted to quit their jobs.
Clearly, the state needs to: 1. Raise pay even more, at least to the national average and 2. Spend even more money on staffing to increase staff size at prisons and thus reduce the chances of officers getting harmed. Both things will require a major investment, in the millions of dollars, but this is a need that has long been neglected and thus the need to catch up, expensively so, has been created. It is no wonder that vacancy rates, even after pay raises and after The Observer called attention to shocking staff shortages, have risen in 51 of the state’s 55 prisons.
There’s really no choice here. Either staffing at prisons is improved through more investment, or another catastrophe is coming. The situation is like volatile chemicals mixed together in a lab; something is going to blow.