NC prisons face changes following tragic year and Observer investigation

NC prisons face changes following tragic year and Observer investigation
(Source: WBTV/File)

RALEIGH, NC (Gavin Off and Ames Alexander/The Charlotte Observer) - Changes are coming to North Carolina's prisons following five fatal assaults on prison workers and a Charlotte Observer investigation highlighting widespread dangers and corruption.

Among other measures, the state says it is building fences, buying batons and frisking employees. It is also installing new equipment to detect cellphones, which inmates have used to plot crimes and orchestrate attacks.

Meanwhile, a new Duke University study confirms much of what the Observer found in its June investigation, and recommends that the state take additional steps to improve prison staffing and security.

In a news release issued last week, the state Department of Public Safety listed more than a dozen steps they are taking to improve prison safety. They include:

  • Frisking almost everyone who enters the prisons.
  • Buying batons for officers in medium-security prisons. Currently, only maximum-security officers are issued batons, which can be used to subdue violent inmates.
  • Upgrading security cameras in several prisons.
  • Installing additional fencing around some prisons, so that it’s harder for inmates to retrieve contraband that is thrown over fences.
  • Creating a new security unit that will develop safety training and ensure regular safety audits at all prisons.

"We're continuing to work to identify proven safety and security practices we can implement to make North Carolina's prisons safer, with many improvements already put in place," Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks said.

But Rep. Bob Steinburg, who serves on a legislative committee that oversees the prisons, said state leaders do not appear to be addressing one of officers' key concerns: Many feel they are getting no respect or support from their supervisors.

"They're not getting at the heart of the problem," said Steinburg, a Republican from eastern North Carolina. "They don't get it."

Surrounded by threats

The changes come at a time when the dangers inside the state's prisons have come into tragic focus.

In April, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed at Bertie Correctional Institution. Authorities say an inmate set a fire inside a trash can and then beat Callahan to death with the fire extinguisher she had brought to put out the flames.

And in October, four prison workers were fatally wounded during an escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Inmates inside the prison's sewing plant stabbed the workers with scissors and beat them with hammers, a prison employee told a 911 dispatcher.

Following the attacks at Pasquotank, state prison leaders shut down the sewing plant permanently and announced steps aimed at keeping dangerous tools out of the hands of violent inmates.

Like most North Carolina prisons, both Bertie and Pasquotank have struggled with persistent staff shortages, the Observer found. Experts said better staffing might have saved the lives of all five prison workers.

The Charlotte Observer's investigation revealed additional threats to prison safety. The newspaper found that some prison officers have sex with inmates. Others beat shackled prisoners, or team up with gang members to allow brutal attacks. Still others run lucrative contraband rings inside prisons.

One story showed how inmates use cellphones to run drug rings and to orchestrate crimes outside prison walls.

Inmate Kelvin Melton, a founder of the United Blood Nation, used a smuggled cellphone in 2014 to arrange a murder-for-hire plot. The plan, to kill a prosecutor's father, was foiled in April 2014, but only after the victim was beaten and locked in a closet for four days.

State prison leaders say they have since put cellphone-detection devices in most of the state's prisons, and plan to have them in all prisons by February.

In 2015, officers confiscated 556 contraband cellphones, state officials say. In 2016, they found 535.

'Serious concerns'

In a June letter to the N.C. Governor's Crime Commission, Hooks acknowledged "a number of serious concerns regarding the operation of these institutions."

He then requested a nationwide study of prison management to identify best practices for improving safety and security.

That study – conducted by Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy – was released last week. Among the recommendations:

  • Increase hiring by forming recruitment committees at each prison and offering referral and signing bonuses. The Duke study found that North Carolina’s officer vacancy rate – about 17 percent – exceeded the rates of five other states that provided data.
  • Extend training for new hires. Basic training for officers in North Carolina lasts four weeks, shorter than most of the seven other states that Duke surveyed. Other law enforcement officers in North Carolina get 16 weeks of training, the study noted.
  • Enhance screening for contraband by using dogs, cellphone-detection technology and random searches. “Staff should be heavily scrutinized at higher-security facilities, where they provide the main channel for contraband introduction,” the report states.
  • Hire an outside agency to study officer salaries. Despite recent pay increases approved by the legislature, pay for officers in the state’s maximum security prisons remains about $8,000 less than the national average, the Observer found.

Pamela Walker, a spokeswoman for DPS, said prison officials would consider all of the study's recommendations – some of which may require legislative action or additional funding. Walker said prison officials were already taking some of the recommended steps, such as increasing their use of contraband-detecting dogs and technology.

The Duke study also recommended that the department hire leaders who can help establish "a new division culture."

The prison system recently lost two top officials. Gwen Norville, deputy secretary of the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, died in September. Her boss, David Guice, resigned on Nov. 1.