RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - An internal email sent by a prison administrator to regional directors of North Carolina's prison system directed prison leaders to move dangerous inmates in order to free up beds at maximum security facilities.
WBTV obtained a copy of the email that was sent in late March - the same time when senior prison leaders were telling lawmakers that work was being done to improve safety in prisons.
The state's prison system has fallen under increased scrutiny since five employees were killed on the job in 2017. This year, dozens of employees have been injured in attacks at prisons around the state.
In response to reporting on the ongoing safety issues within the prison system, state officials have provided knowingly false information about a prison attack, made a WBTV photographer stop taking video of a prison from a public parking lot and has repeatedly told a WBTV reporter officials with the prison system would not talk with him, even going so far as to call police in hopes of avoiding the reporter's questions.
The most dangerous inmates in the state's prison system are referred to as close custody inmates and the prisons where they are houses are known as close custody facilities.
The email obtained by WBTV was sent on March 22 by Shane Tharrington, who is the manager of classification and technical support for the state's prison system.
"Per Deputy Director Joyner and Assistant Director Bostic each region is being asked to identify for and complete promotions of 75 Close Custody inmates to Medium Custody," Tharrington said in his email.
"The deadline for this endeavor is Friday, March 30, 2018. Our facilities are in a dire bed shortage situation across all custody levels due to various issues and this project will help tremendously with the shortages in Close Custody," the email continued.
For months, WBTV has spoken with employees who work inside prisons. Many have said the practice by prison leadership of moving dangerous inmates to lower-security facilities increases the danger corrections officers face at those facilities.
But WBTV has not been able to confirm the practice until now.
"Thank you for your assistance in this very important project," Tharrington's email ended.
Ardis Watkins, who works for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which represents thousands of prison employees, said in an interview the email uncovered by WBTV substantiates a problem her members have told her about repeatedly.
"It's just moving the problem and creating a different problem elsewhere," Watkins said. "It's like squeezing the balloon. It's going to pop out somewhere else."
A spokesman for the prison system only promotes inmates for good behavior and not anything else.
"Prison safety is our top priority and modifying offenders custody status based on their behavior helps manage prison populations and can contribute to overall prison security," spokesman Jerry Higgins said. "As part of ongoing prison reforms, at the request of DPS leadership the National Institute of Corrections is currently reviewing and revalidating the system North Carolina uses to classify its inmates to help improve prison security."
Higgins' did not directly address the email obtained by WBTV in which state-level prison leadership directed staff to move dangerous inmates to lower-security facilities simply to free up beds.
Watkins, the state employees' spokeswoman, said the information uncovered by WBTV is the latest example of the ongoing problems in the prison system.
"No matter how you cut it, no matter how you make it look in a graph or a chart, it's clear we have a problem," Watkins said. "Right now we're measuring it in amount of taxpayer dollars it would take to fix this," Watkins said. "We're going to be measuring it in how many human lives it costs us not to."