CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The number of vacant corrections officer positions in North Carolina's prison system nearly doubled between October 2015 and October 2017, according to internal staffing reports obtained by WBTV.
The staffing shortage ballooned to more than 1,400 officers in the same year that five prison employees were killed in violent attacks by inmates at two prisons.
Despite that, one former prison personnel clerk said, prison administrators have taken steps to manipulate the numbers in an attempt to make the deep extent of the staffing shortage.
Internal documents show major staff shortfall
WBTV obtained a copy of internal prison documents that show the weekly number of corrections officer vacancies dating back to 2015.
According to the documents, there were a total of 847 open corrections officer positions across the state on October 30, 2015.
That number grew to 934 vacant CO positions the same week a year later, on October 28, 2016.
By October 31, 2017, the number had nearly doubled to 1,403 vacant corrections officer positions, roughly fifteen percent of the entire number of corrections officer positions budgeted.
Some of the highest vacancy rates are at prisons that have frequently been in the headlines. At least three facilities were missing roughly a quarter of their allotted CO positions.
Lanesboro Correctional Institution—one of the state's largest prisons, in Anson County—had a twenty-four percent CO vacancy rate.
Bertie Correctional Institution, where Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed in an attack by an inmate in April—had a twenty-six percent vacancy rate in October of last year.
And Pasquotank Correctional Institution, where four prison employees were killed by inmates attempting to escape the facility, was operating at a twenty-eight percent vacancy rate at the time of the incident, the internal documents show.
Prison leadership asked to 'fudge the numbers'
While the weekly internal vacancy reports reflect the total number of vacant CO positions, the focus of the report is on a small number – the number of positions for which a candidate has not been identified.
That number is referred to as the "vacancies not in progress" total on the report. It is highlighted in red as the last column on the spreadsheet tracking the vacancies in each facility.
In a separate number on the spreadsheet, the number of vacancies not in progress - which, for October 31, 2017 was just 853 out of 1,403 total vacant positions - was emphasized.
But one woman who, until recently, worked as the personnel clerk at a state prison said prison administrators would ask prison-level HR staff to alter their weekly reports to reflect more positions in the hiring process.
"They have asked me before, 'instead of sending in a report with this position number still vacant, I gave you a position number last week.' And I'm like, 'but there's no hire date!'" Lisa Jennings explained.
Until recently, Jennings worked as the staff clerk at Carteret Correctional Center. She said prison leadership staff in Raleigh would ask her to list more numbers of officers 'in process' at her prison to make it look like more people were "working there or getting ready to work there."
"Are those numbers accurate?" a WBTV reporter asked.
"I would have to say no," Jennings responded.
300 inmates, four corrections officers
The result of the prison administration's attempt to make it look like more corrections officers are working at facilities than actually are on the job, Jennings said, can be a critically low number of CO's working any one shift.
"There are nights that I know some of the CO's that work night shift are trying to work with a four-man crew when there should be a nine-man crew," Jennings said of her facility.
The practical result of just four officers guarding 300 men is that open dormitories of up to 60 prisoners go unwatched for periods of time, Jennings said. As a result, she said, incidents can happen.
"There is no way for four CO's to be able to take care of 300 men," she said. "You can't take care of children in school with two teachers, three teachers, four teachers and a headcount of 300!"
Jennings recently submitted her two-weeks notice, she said, because she no longer felt safe when she went to work. She said she has seen little to nothing changed at her prison to make her working environment any safer, despite what prison leadership has said.
"It's not under control," she said. "For them to say it is, I find that hard to even fathom that they would think that they could say that because where have they been?"
A spokeswoman for Eric Hooks, North Carolina Secretary of Public Safety, declined to make Hooks or any other prison leader available for an on-camera interview to answer questions related to our investigation.