CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Gavin Off and Ames Alexander | The Charlotte Observer) - State officials have announced that they will train new prison officers far more quickly – a change intended to help officers defend themselves and make prisons safer.
The new approach, unveiled by the state Department of Public Safety on Wednesday, addresses one of the problems identified in a recent Charlotte Observer series about corruption in state prisons.
The stories showed that newly hired officers usually get just one week of orientation before they're put to work – guarding inmates who may try to manipulate or attack them.
Many officers interviewed said it took months before they got a four-week basic training class, where they learned crucial skills such as how to defend themselves.
Under the new approach, rookie officers will begin their basic training during their second week on the job.
It's one of several steps taken by prison leaders following the newspaper's investigation. At several prisons, state officials have begun testing new ways to prevent employees from smuggling drugs, cellphones and other contraband to inmates.
This week, the Observer also reported that North Carolina will soon launch a nationwide study to find better ways to battle corruption and improve safety inside its prisons.
Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks said he hopes the new training approach will "better equip newly hired correctional officers so they excel at keeping order in the prisons for the safety of staff, inmates and ultimately the public."
The change goes into effect immediately. Prison leaders say they've redirected resources to provide faster training to new hires, and that they are working to make sure that all officers who are already on the job have attended basic training.
Once every eight hours, on average, an N.C. prison officer was assaulted last year.
In April, prison officials say, an inmate assaulted and killed officer Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution after she responded to a fire that the inmate set in a trash can.
Angela Smith, a former officer at Tabor Correctional Institution, near the South Carolina line, said the training change will help officers protect themselves.
She recalled her first eight months on the job in 2010 and 2011, before she got basic training.
"I was scared to death for my first month or so," Smith said. "You're clueless. You don't know the techniques of self-defense. You have no baton. All you have is pepper spray, and you really don't know how to use that."
Getting officers trained more quickly should help retain them and also give them "a chance to decide if this is really what they want to do," Smith said.
Prison leaders say they are also studying whether to revise and expand basic training. A DPS news release says the department "will take a more hands-on role during training to help emphasize professionalism, ethics and the importance of a public safety career."
North Carolina's past practices contrast starkly with the approach taken by some other states.
- In New Jersey, those who want to be correctional officers must attend a 14-week training academy and complete two weeks of supervised work before their first day alone on the job.
- Virginia requires 10 weeks of training – six at an academy and four at a prison. After the training, new officers must shadow a veteran officer for a minimum of 200 hours.
- California’s correctional officers receive 12 weeks of pre-employment training.
In North Carolina, staff shortages have made it more difficult for the prisons to get new officers trained promptly. As of May, about 16 percent of officer positions were vacant.
Finding people who are willing to work as prison officers isn't easy. Retaining those employees can be equally difficult, prison officials say.
The work is dangerous and the pay for North Carolina officers lags far behind the national average. Many of the large maximum-security prisons – such as Bertie, in northeastern North Carolina, and Lanesboro Correctional Institution, southeast of Charlotte – are in rural areas, where recruiting is difficult.
North Carolina prison leaders say budget cuts in the 2000s hurt the state's training program. But they say they are working to improve how they mentor new hires. New officers are now assigned "career readiness coaches," who advise them how to cope with the challenges of their jobs.