CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) - More than nine out of ten North Carolina prison employees charged in the past five years with smuggling drugs and cellphones or committing other crimes escaped prison time, primarily because prosecutor dropped charges, state prison officials reported.
Just four of the 57 prison employees charged with crimes between 2013 and 2017 landed behind bars themselves, according to a recent Department of Public Safety review conducted for legislators. Prosecutors dropped cases about 60 percent of the time, while 30 of the workers charged got probation, The Charlotte Observer reported .
One reason is that providing drugs or cellphones to inmates are low-level felonies in North Carolina, so relatively clean criminal records can mean probation rather than prison time.
Law-abiding prison employees are "afraid these (corrupt) officers ... are going to get them killed. They want them out," said state Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican whose district includes the Elizabeth City prison where four workers were killed in a failed escape attempt last October.
Former prison officer Kevin Swinney illustrates the trend. In 2014, he was accused of trying to smuggle four wristwatch cellphones into Lanesboro Correctional Institution, 45 miles (70 kilometers) southeast of Charlotte. The Polkton prison has been plagued for years by violence and corruption. Swinney was sentenced to a year of probation after giving police a full confession.
In 2015, prison food service worker Kendra Miller was accused of having sex with a convicted murderer and helping him escape from Brown Creek Correctional Institution, next to Lanesboro. Nearly three years later, prosecutors dropped the felony charges against Miller and allowed her to plead guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge. She was sentenced to six months of probation.
District Attorney Reece Saunders declined to explain his decision to dismiss felony charges against Miller earlier this year. But he said prosecuting cases involving prison employees isn't easy because they often hinge on the cooperation of inmates, who sometimes change their stories or refuse to testify.
Saunders recalled a case years ago involving a prison employee accused of having sex with inmates. The State Bureau of Investigation "thought they had the greatest case in the world," he said. "We had a probable cause hearing, and the inmates came into court and refused to even say their names. Wouldn't testify at all."
Saunders also said prosecutors are mindful that correctional officers could face the risk of getting hurt by other inmates because of their past careers if they were imprisoned.
"Is alternative punishment more just than throwing somebody in with the wolves?" he asked.