Prison attacks have been killing officers. Now NC is taking action to protect them.

Prison attacks have been killing officers. Now NC is taking action to protect them.

NORTH CAROLINA (Ames Alexander and Gavin Off/The Charlotte Observer) - North Carolina prison leaders on Thursday announced changes to make prisons safer, saying they will spend millions on equipment to protect employees from attacks and devices to detect smuggled cellphones.

Their presentation to a panel of lawmakers follows a tumultuous year for the state's prisons.

In May, The Charlotte Observer published "Wrong Side of the Bars," a five-part investigation showing that much of the corruption in the state's prisons is fueled by the very officers who are paid to prevent it.

Also last year, five prison employees were fatally wounded on the job, allegedly at the hands of inmates wielding scissors, hammers and a fire extinguisher.

"We owe it to the public and to our employees to keep state prisons secure, and we owe it to our fallen employees and their families to do all we can to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again," Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks told members of the Justice and Public Safety Oversight Committee.

To improve prison safety and security, department leaders said they plan to:

  • Spend $3.6 million on stab-resistant undershirts for certified staff members.

Hundreds of times each year, North Carolina inmates are disciplined for attacking officers. Sometimes, they use prison-issued tools or use weapons made from sharpened metal or hardened plastic.

  • Spend $12.5 million on personal body alarms for officers and visitors.

The body alarms – and technological upgrades that will accompany them – would help staff and visitors notify others if an inmate attacks. On Oct. 12, it took first responders about 20 minutes to arrive after two employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution were fatally wounded during an escape attempt, records show. Ultimately, four employees at the Eastern North Carolina prison died from their wounds.

  • Spend $1.5 million on new surveillance video cameras. Some prisons currently have no cameras.
  • Purchase technology to detect, intercept and block calls from contraband cellphones.

'A concerted effort'

In last year's investigation, Observer reporters documented how smuggled cellphones allow inmates to run drug rings inside prisons and carry out crimes on the outside. In 2014, an inmate in solitary confinement used a smuggled cellphone to orchestrate the kidnapping of a prosecutor's father.

Hooks said the cellphone-blocking technology, known as managed access systems, would be deployed at two prisons in 2018.

"We're working to do whatever is needed to improve the safety and security of North Carolina's prisons, reduce their inherent dangers and enhance the working environment for our criminal justice professionals who serve in our facilities," Hooks stated.

Starting in March, the prisons will also begin a new field training program for officers, officials said. Each new officer will be assigned a trainer who for the first two years will mentor them on the best and safest practices.

"It will take a concerted effort by our department and this body to make our prisons safer," Hooks told lawmakers.

That includes hiring more officers and retaining them.

N.C. prisons are short 1,300 officers, said Kenneth Lassiter, director of prisons, and they lose more officers than they hire each year.

Last year, on average, the state hired 147 officers each month but lost 150.

Shari Howard, human resource director of DPS, said about half of new officers leave within their first two years on the job.

The reasons for the resignations vary, but many officers interviewed by the Observer in recent months cited the dangers of prison work, along with low pay, long hours and poor working conditions. Others said they felt supervisors were not supporting them.

'The elephant in the room'

Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Edenton, came to the meeting with a foot-high stack of letters from inmates and officers, many of whom said prison supervisors and leaders don't respect staff.

"The elephant in the room is morale," Steinburg told the Observer after the meeting. "There is not poor morale, there is no morale. None. That's the problem, and nobody wants to talk about it."

In recent months, prison leaders have taken a number of other steps to improve prison safety. They include:

  • Frisking almost everyone who enters the prisons.
  • Buying batons for officers in medium-security prisons. Previously, only maximum-security officers were issued batons, which can be used to subdue violent inmates.
  • 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.
  • Forming a Prison Reform Advisory Board consisting of national corrections experts who would provide guidance on how to make the prisons safer and more secure.