Opinion

NC’s prison crisis needs drastic change

Investigators with the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health Division cited the state prison system for failing to eliminate hazards “likely to cause death or serious injury” following the fatal attacks on four employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in October of 2017.
Investigators with the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health Division cited the state prison system for failing to eliminate hazards “likely to cause death or serious injury” following the fatal attacks on four employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in October of 2017.

The condition of the North Carolina corrections system is a blight on the state’s reputation and a threat to the safety of prison employees and inmates. And it ultimately threatens the public as men and women come out of a period of incarceration marked by violence, poor housing conditions and a lack of preparation for re-entry to society.

The system’s ills were highlighted last week in a report presented to state lawmakers by Todd Ishee, who became North Carolina’s first Commissioner of Prisons in July after serving as deputy director of Ohio’s prison system. Ishee ran through a list of problems and said, “The trends are getting worse by the year and we’re at the point where we need to take drastic measures.”

The first drastic measure has already been taken. A shortage of corrections officers and other staff has forced the temporary closing of three minimum security prisons and has required officers to work 12-hour days on mandatory overtime. The official vacancy rate among prison staff is 20 percent, Ishee said, but the effective rate is closer to 30 percent because of employees in training or on leave. The lack of staff has raised the risk of violence among inmates and against prison workers — five were killed in 2017. It has also reduced opportunities for the training and education of staff and inmates.

Poor pay for corrections officers causes chronic turnover, requires mandatory overtime and contributes to contraband entering prisons. More than a third of officers in their 20s leave the job within six months, Ishee said, and more than half of them leave within a year. “We have lost more staff than we have been able to hire,” he said.

A lack of supervisory staff has caused 2,300 prison beds to be “taken offline,” Ishee said. One consequence of that is that some 1,000 state prisoners are being kept in county jails, putting pressure on those staffs and budgets.

In 2018, corrections officers got a 4 percent raise, but that doesn’t do much to improve the appeal of a dangerous and sometimes grim job for which the average pay is $36,990 annually.

Meanwhile, in a hardship for inmates and prison workers alike, nearly 40 percent of the state’s inmates are housed in old buildings — such as those at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh — that lack air conditioning.

State lawmakers recognize the problems and Gov. Roy Cooper has made organizational changes to improve the situation. One change was the establishment of a new Commissioner of Prisons post within the Department of Public Safety.

Another was the formation of the North Carolina Prison Reform Advisory Board, a seven-member group headed by a retired Army major general and including individuals with extensive experience in prison operations. The board recently presented its first set of recommended reforms to Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik A. Hooks.

The committee put improving hiring, training and retention of prison employees at the top of its 30 recommendations. It also recommended more funding to “eliminate (the prison system’s) structural budget deficit and provide a line-item budget that reflects the true operating costs and needs.”

The legislature’s Republican majority did not create the system’s problems, but nearly a decade of austerity budgeting under Republicans has aggravated the problems. Improving conditions must start with improving the compensation for the state’s correction officers. But further investment should be made in improving medical care, building conditions and officer training.

A state’s prison system should reflect its commitment to justice and public safety. But today in North Carolina the system mostly reflects neglect. It’s time for the state to take better care of its prison workers, its prison inmates and its basic responsibilities.

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