Understaffed N.C. prisons still a ticking time bomb

— The Fayetteville Observer

Posted

It was one of the deadliest years in the history of North Carolina’s prison system. Five prison employees were killed in two incidents at state prisons in 2017. Given the way our prisons were staffed and the guards were trained and equipped, we should have seen it coming.

Our prisons, it turned out, were dreadfully understaffed. Years of budget cuts had made a shambles of prison safety. None of our state corrections institutions had enough guards to keep the peace. The prisons started with a guard deficit and things went downhill from there, because turnover was exceptionally high and vacancies could run to 40 percent or more. To make up for it, the remaining guards worked vast amounts of overtime and were chronically exhausted as they tried to do one of the most stressful jobs in our society. And the pay was lousy. Working immense quantities of overtime was really the only way to make a decent living. Many of the state’s prisons are located in impoverished rural areas where good-paying work is scarce.

Nearly two years ago, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was beaten to death at the Bertie Correctional Institution. She had only half the number of guards on duty that she should have. Six months later, as only one guard watched more than 30 prisoners in a Pasquotank Correctional Institution sewing plant, four inmates wielding scissors and hammers tried to break out. Four prison staffers were killed.

The two incidents spurred immediate calls for reform and it appeared that lawmakers and state prison officials were going to make rapid progress in raising pay, improving working conditions and upgrading prison workers’ training and equipment. Indeed, the system has made some progress.

But a report last week in The Charlotte Observer indicates that the progress has been, at best, incremental. The prison system paid more than $45 million in overtime last year, which is 10 times more than it paid in 2011. Vacancy rates for officers has doubled since 2016, rising from 9 percent to 18 percent. At least two maximum-security prisons had guard vacancy rates exceeding 35 percent at times last year.

The state has about 9,000 officers supervising more than 36,000 inmates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At every major prison, overtime was up last year. The average officer worked 172 hours of overtime, the equivalent of working more than an extra month.

The state’s director of prisons, Kenneth Lassiter, told the Observer that the solution is to hire and retain more officers. We hope they get the job done soon. Until they do, our prisons remain a ticking time bomb.

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