North Carolina paid prison officers more than $45 million in overtime last year, about 10 times more than it did in 2011, data show.
The increase comes as the state struggles to hire and retain prison workers, men and women who supervise some 36,400 inmates. Records show the vacancy rate for officer positions doubled since January 2016, increasing from 9 percent to about 18 percent last December.
Nine prisons — including two maximum-security facilities — had an officer vacancy rate of more than 35 percent during at least one month last year. That does not include positions left vacant because of leaves of absence.
“These figures are disturbing,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “This is an emergency situation.”
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In April 2017, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was beaten to death at Bertie Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina. Callahan had only half the recommended number of staff under her command that day, officers told the Observer.
In October 2017, just one officer was watching more than 30 inmates in a sewing plant at another eastern North Carolina prison when four inmates armed with scissors and hammers tried to escape. Four prison workers were fatally wounded in the escape attempt.
Also that year, in a Delaware prison, more than a dozen inmates rioted, killing an officer. An independent review of the attack found that James T. Vaughn Correctional Center was “critically understaffed, and as a result, officers are physically and mentally exhausted.”
Ardis Watkins, a lobbyist for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said she can’t think of another job that is “physically, emotionally and mentally more stressful.”
Yet many of the state’s roughly 9,000 officers are working more hours than ever.
According to the Observer’s analysis:
- All of the state’s major prisons saw an increase in overtime payments to officers last year.
- The average prison officer worked 172 hours of overtime last year - five times more than in 2011.
- Last year, more than 20 officers doubled their pay by working overtime, up from nine in 2017 and zero in 2011.
- In 2018, 80 officers made more than $30,000 in overtime.
Thirteen made more than $40,000 and six made more than $50,000 in overtime, last year.
“You can end up with a tremendous amount more than your annual salary,” Watkins said. “But you would have to work seven days a week, 12-hour shifts. I can’t even imagine the danger it puts that officer in and everyone else in the prison.”
It also puts state prison leaders in a tough position, she said.
“The only way to try to address the staff shortage is to get the folks you already have to work more,” Watkins said. “That’s adding to burnout ... We’re creating more and more of our own problems.”
‘They really didn’t care’
One reason officers need to work overtime is because North Carolina has failed for years to retain the officers it hires, said Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter.
The state hired about 2,000 correctional officers in 2018 but lost the same number that year, according to an Observer analysis of employee data.
Some of those who walked away racked up more than 500 hours of overtime last year.
Lassiter said the state tries to plan ahead when scheduling overtime, and prison officials ask for volunteers as much as possible.
He also said officers who feel fatigued should tell a supervisor, and supervisors should not punish officers for sharing their feelings.
But the long-term solution, Lassiter said, is to hire and retain more officers.
To keep workers at their jobs, Lassiter said the state has increased officer pay in recent years. That helps explain the dramatic increase in annual overtime payments, he said.
And in January, North Carolina increased basic training from four weeks to six weeks, giving rookies more time to feel safer and comfortable in a prison.
Lassiter said he’s confident North Carolina will solve the retention problem.
“We have every branch of government behind us,” Lassiter said. “That’s unheard of in government. Corrections now is getting the attention that it should have a decade ago.”
It was around that time when state officials inadvertently laid the groundwork for today’s staff shortages. State leaders elected to build massive prisons in rural towns, trying to spur economic development in the local economies.
Hookerton, N.C., for example, has about 400 residents but is home to Maury Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison that houses 1,500 inmates.
Spruce Pine, N.C., has about 2,100 residents. It’s home to two prisons — Avery-Mitchell and Mountain View correctional institutions — which hold a total of more than 1,600 inmates.
Finding qualified employees, retaining them and keeping them safe has been a challenge.
That challenge has been taken up by the N.C. Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety, which formed this month. The 13-member committee is charged with finding ways to make prison work safer and more attractive to job hunters.
It’s led by Sen. Bob Steinburg, an Edenton Republican who serves the area where the five prison workers were killed in 2017.
“We have a problem here, and it’s got to be fixed,” Steinburg said. “The only way we can fix it is recruitment and retention.”