One was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Another allegedly used Facebook to post photos of gang signs and allusions to marijuana and cocaine use. A third pressed a gun to a man’s head so hard that his ear bled.
They all had something in common: They went on to become North Carolina prison officers.
Desperate for correctional officers who are willing to handle a dangerous job for low pay, the state hires dozens of people with questionable backgrounds. Some belong to gangs. Others have been convicted of serious crimes, or have been forced out of previous prison jobs because of poor behavior.
As a result, the Charlotte Observer found, state prisons have employed staff members who undermine the safety of inmates, fellow officers and even law-abiding citizens on the outside.
The whole (hiring) system needs an overhaul.
Matthew Norris, chief of the Polkton Police Department and former correctional officer.
Robert Webster, a former state prison captain, recalls what he used to tell staff members: “Some of you all have the wrong uniforms on.”
State officials say they look closely at the backgrounds of those who apply for prison work – and that most employees handle their jobs ethically and professionally.
But the Observer found that North Carolina has failed to take simple steps that other states use to weed out potentially dangerous job candidates.
Polkton Police Chief Matthew Norris, a former correctional officer who is often called in to investigate crimes at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, said he believes the prisons need to increase their hiring standards.
“I don’t think their screening process is catching all the ones they need to catch,” Norris said. “The whole (hiring) system needs an overhaul.”
The baggage they bring
North Carolina prohibits those with felony convictions from becoming correctional officers. State rules also require that officers demonstrate “good moral character.”
But the prisons hire some with alarming pasts, the Observer found.
▪ Brent Soucier had a violent history. After a night of drinking in 1997, Soucier cocked a semi-automatic handgun and pressed the barrel to a man’s head so hard that his ear bled, records show. Unaware that Soucier’s gun was unloaded, the victim feared for his life. The following year, Soucier pleaded no contest to assault and was fired from his job as a correctional officer for the state of Vermont.
Four months later, in June 1998, Soucier landed another job as a correctional officer – this time in North Carolina. Later, Soucier became one of the officers named in a 2013 federal lawsuit alleging that officers at Central Prison frequently beat handcuffed inmates in parts of the prison that weren’t monitored by video cameras. The state has reached settlements with all but one of the eight inmates who filed that lawsuit.
Soucier, who continues to work for the prison system, refused to comment for this story.
▪ When Cynthia Daly was hired to work as a North Carolina correctional officer in 2008, she had already been convicted of at least 20 misdemeanor criminal charges, including larceny and multiple violations of the state’s employment security law.
In June 2015, Daly was supposed to be guarding an inmate receiving medical treatment when she stole again. Police said she took a $30,000 wedding ring from a hospital employee, along with a purse and keys that she used to break into the employee’s car. For more than seven months after her arrest, she remained on the job. She resigned in February 2016, and was convicted of felony larceny two months later.
Daly did not respond to a letter requesting comment.
▪ By the time Kendra Lynette Miller landed a prison job, she had already been charged with a string of crimes – including assault and battery, writing a worthless check and assault with a deadly weapon. She was convicted of a minor traffic violation in 2002 and misdemeanor assault the following year.
Miller was hired as a food service worker for Brown Creek Correctional Institution in 2015. About six months later, authorities charged her with having sex with an inmate and helping him escape. She resigned from the prison in June 2015.
Miller denied that she had sex with with the inmate and that she helped him escape, her attorney said. Miller’s court case is pending.
North Carolina prison officials refused to discuss the cases of individual employees.
‘People get hurt’
Working inside the prisons can test an officer’s patience – and ethics. Once every eight hours, on average, a North Carolina correctional officer was assaulted last year. Some inmates throw urine and feces on prison guards. Others try to seduce them, or enlist them in lucrative schemes to smuggle in contraband.
For this reason, experts say, prisons aren’t a place for employees with questionable pasts. Even a few corrupt staff members can fill a prison with dangerous weapons, drugs and cellphones – and send a message to other employees that they, too, can profit from crimes.
“People get hurt,” said Gary Harkins, former research and information director for the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. “People get killed if you don't have qualified staff.”
Some of North Carolina’s hiring troubles can be traced to location and money.
Many of the state’s prisons are located in thinly populated areas where labor pools are shallow. Lawmakers pushed to have those prisons built in rural counties that needed an economic development boost.
And North Carolina pays its prison officers poorly. Even after increases approved by the state legislature in 2015, the average annual pay for officers at the state’s maximum-security prisons is about $35,000. That’s nearly $12,000 less than the national average for correctional officers and jailers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Searching for warning signs
North Carolina does less than some states to ensure that prospective officers are fit for prison work.
State prison leaders say they thoroughly examine the backgrounds of job applicants. They check candidates’ criminal histories, and they reject those convicted of felonies, as well as many who were recently convicted of misdemeanors. They also check job references, drug test applicants and conduct exams to test candidates’ physical and psychological fitness, officials said.
North Carolina tries to weed out people who have had alcohol or drug problems, troubled work histories and difficulties managing their finances, said David Guice, chief deputy secretary of adult correction and juvenile justice.
But, Guice acknowledged, the prison system needs to do more.
“We’ve got to do a better job on the front end on hiring,” he said. “There is no question.”
Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks, meanwhile, said in May that he has established a new office that he hopes will bring a sharper focus on employee misconduct. The new professional standards division will be headed by Pam Cashwell, formerly an assistant director for the state Ethics Commission.
Hiring a correctional officer takes about two months, said state prison spokesman Keith Acree.
In California, by contrast, it typically takes six months to vet potential guards, who go through the same screening process as police officers, said Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
California checks applicants’ credit histories. The state also interviews character references and reviews candidates’ social media accounts. Then it puts potential officers in a 12-week training academy before their first day on the job.
“By the time you take a look at their references, at their work history, at their credit rating, you begin to get a more well-rounded picture or some understanding of what this person is like,” Sessa said.
Ignoring the obvious
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety hires about 1,800 to 2,000 correctional officers a year.
Finding signs of trouble in a job applicant’s history isn’t always easy. But in some cases, simply checking an applicant’s Facebook page might have turned up red flags. North Carolina doesn’t do that.
In July 2012, Jeffrey Haughton was hired as an officer for Hyde Correctional Institution, near the coast. He was fired three months later, after a prison captain got an anonymous package containing photos from Haughton’s Facebook page. Haughton was allegedly displaying signs commonly used by gangs such as the Bloods.
One of the photos showed Haughton with a gang member from coastal Washington County, his dismissal letter stated.
Haughton’s Facebook page also included posts suggesting drug use, the letter said.
Haughton could not be reached for comment. According to his dismissal letter, however, he told prison officials he wasn’t a gang member, but acknowledged that some of his associates are.
State prison leaders said that they have no system in place to check job applicants’ Facebook pages.
‘Who are these people?’
Since 2012, at least 70 state employees have been criminally charged for offenses inside the prisons, the Observer found. About 50 more have been charged with felonies outside the prisons.
Among those accused: Bishme Allah, a former officer who was charged in 2016 with engaging in sexual intercourse with two inmates – and sexual acts with two more – at Raleigh’s women's prison. Allah previously had a sexual relationship with an inmate while working at a county jail in Virginia, an SBI agent alleged in a search warrant application.
Allah’s 2016 arrest wasn’t his first. In 2006, he was also charged with assault and battery in Virginia. Those charges were dismissed.
His attorney, Randolph Hill, said Allah denies having a sexual relationship with an inmate in Virginia. Allah said he resigned from his job at a county sheriff’s office in Virginia after he was accused of touching a co-worker inappropriately, according to Hill. Allah has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges in North Carolina. The case is pending.
Officials with the sheriff’s office in Henrico County, Va., say no one from the North Carolina prisons ever contacted them to ask about Allah’s track record there.
North Carolina prison officials have fired Allah. But they would not discuss what screening they did before hiring him and whether they knew about his troubles in Virginia.
Elizabeth Forbes, director of the criminal justice reform group NC CURE, said too many correctional officers bring dangerous baggage into the prisons.
“When you have a prison officer who is standing on the outside of a prison cell and many times belongs on the other side … it is a very complicated and frightening scenario,” Forbes said.
“I know who we have in our prisons, but who do we have watching our prison cells?” she asked. “Who are these people?”
Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex
Gavin Off: 704-358-6038