Politics & Government

Prison workers were careless with drugs — now NC taxpayers are footing the bill


Prison officials in North Carolina have agreed to pay the federal government nearly $200,000 in order to wrap up an investigation into the improper handling of drugs inside two Raleigh prisons.

The state paid a $190,000 fine to settle with the Trump administration's Department of Justice instead of fighting the allegations, the DOJ announced Wednesday. If the state had fought and lost, North Carolina taxpayers would've had to pay significantly more — as much as $900,000.

The federal investigation found that from 2014 to 2016, prison workers gave out controlled substances, like prescription drugs, but failed to document what happened with those drugs. The investigators discovered this happened dozens of times at Central Prison, which is home to the state's death row, as well as at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. Both are near downtown Raleigh.

It's unclear whether the workers dispensed the drugs legitimately and then forgot to fill out paperwork, or whether they were purposefully avoiding paperwork in order to either sell drugs to prisoners or steal drugs for themselves and cover it up.

Federal investigators said they didn't find any evidence of criminal behavior, but they also said the nature of the prison workers' actions would have made any potential crimes difficult to detect.

"While no unlawful use of controlled substances was detected, the substandard recordkeeping provided fertile ground for improper diversion," the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release.

North Carolina Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks said in a written statement Wednesday that the prison system is already improving its policies, training and oversight rules to stop this from happening again.

“Since taking on the role of Secretary in January 2017, I have been very clear about requiring Prisons to improve its operations in order to ensure effective oversight and accountability," Hooks said. "I agreed for the department to take responsibility for past practices with the understanding that extensive corrective actions were taken to address this issue.”

In North Carolina, prison employees can make tens of thousands of dollars a year smuggling in cellphones, drugs and cigarettes for inmates, according to a recent Charlotte Observer investigation into prison corruption.

Prison drug smuggling in North Carolina frequently involves synthetic marijuana, a substance that's more dangerous than real marijuana and has been tied to at least two deaths and many more hospitalizations of inmates in the past few years.

But as the country's opioid epidemic grows, its reach has infiltrated prisons as well. In addition to being the leading cause of non-natural death in the general U.S. population, overdoses are also one of the main causes of death within prisons.

“The handling of prescription controlled substances inside our prisons poses some unique challenges,” Robert Higdon, the U.S. attorney for eastern North Carolina, said in a statement announcing the settlement. "And yet given the possibility of illegal diversion to inmates and others, scrupulous recordkeeping and tracking of controlled substances is essential."

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran