ANSON COUNTY, N.C. (Ames Alexander and Gavin Off | The Charlotte Observer) - Lanesboro Correctional Institution, one of North Carolina's most dangerous and understaffed prisons, will soon be converted to a women's prison - a major change that state leaders hope will improve safety and security.
Lanesboro, a maximum-security prison located about 45 miles southeast of Charlotte, will also be getting a new name: Anson Correctional Institution.
For years, Lanesboro has been roiled by violence and corruption. Dozens of officers and inmates have been attacked there since it opened in January 2004. And an Observer investigation found that at least eight Lanesboro officers were caught bringing in drugs, cellphones and tobacco from early 2013 to early 2017.
Housing about 1,800 male inmates, Lanesboro is now the state's largest prison. The state's plan calls for transferring most of those inmates to other prisons - including Southern Correctional Institution in Montgomery County and Eastern Correctional Institution in Greene County, which will be converted from female to male facilities.
"We are converting the facilities to enhance safety and security and improve management of close custody male inmates who require greater supervision by moving them into smaller facilities and smaller housing units," Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter said.
The minimum-security unit at Lanesboro, now housed in the building that was once known as Brown Creek Correctional Institution, will remain a male facility.
It will take up to a year to make the changes, state prison leaders said.
Staff shortages at Lanesboro have made a dangerous situation more so, some officers say. In January, more than one of every three officer positions at the prison was vacant.
It's not yet clear how the changes will affect staffing at the prison.
"We anticipate that recruitment for custody, program, medical and mental health staff to work with the females at Lanesboro will be more successful than it has been for adult male offenders," interim state prison chief Reuben Young wrote in a letter sent to prison staffers Monday.
Not everyone is convinced.
Marcus Mercer, a former Lanesboro officer, said the prison's staffing problems may increase after the conversion.
Many male officers don't want to work with female inmates, said Mercer, who resigned from the Lanesboro in 2016 after inmates stabbed him with a homemade knife and made threatening calls to his cellphone.
Many men fear false sexual harassment complaints around female prisoners, he said.
The switch could create hardships for inmates with family members nearby, said Elizabeth Forbes, director of NC-CURE, a criminal justice reform group.
Forbes said visits with family and friends help rehabilitate inmates and keep them out of trouble.
"It's the one thing that keeps them sane," she said.
Family members of many inmates can't afford the gas to drive across North Carolina for a visit, let alone book a hotel room, Forbes said.