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North Carolina prison safety still a work in progress

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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. Every one of them knew every day as they punched in that there was a high likelihood that they would be injured — perhaps severely or even fatally — on the job. 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, which is about the only thing that keeps guard turnover from being even worse than it is.

Nearly two years ago, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was beaten to death at the Bertie Correctional Institution. She had, according to several reports, 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 in all those areas.

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. David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told the Observer that, “This is an emergency situation.”

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 last year — the equivalent of working more than an extra month. Eighty of those officers made more than $30,000 in overtime. At that pace, it’s almost impossible for them to also be as alert and well-rested as a prison guard needs to be.

The state’s director of prisons, Kenneth Lassiter, told the Observer that the solution is to hire and retain more officers. That was the solution last year, too. Lassiter insists that “Corrections now is getting the attention that it should have a decade ago.” Indeed, the new Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety was established last month with a vow by its chairman, Sen. Bob Steinburg, to fix the problems. “The only way we can fix it is recruitment and retention,” Steinburg says. He’s right.

We hope they get the job done soon. Until they do, our prisons remain a ticking time bomb.

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