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Reporters Discuss Dangers Of Staff Shortage In NC Prisons

John Simmons
Charlotte Observer
Four prison workers were killed by inmates in an escape attemt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, pictured here.

Five North Carolina prison workers have died at the hands of inmates this year. In October, inmates killed two prison workers outright and fatally injured two others at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City. An officer was killed in April at Bertie Correctional Institution in the eastern part of the state. The Charlotte Observer's Ames Alexander and Gavin Off have reported on how a staffing shortage may have contributed to those deaths and is making the jobs of many prison officers more dangerous.

TERRY: What exactly happened that day at Pasquotank?

ALEXANDER: It happened in the prison’s sewing plant. There was just one officer who was overseeing more than thirty inmates in the sewing plant. And these inmates had access to potentially dangerous tools like scissors. And so from what we've been able to glean, these inmates banded together to form an escape plan and they wound up attacking one sewing plant supervisor and then they they killed her and then they killed the officer. And it was twenty minutes from the time of the first attack until backup arrived.

TERRY: And of course it was a failed attempt. None of the inmates actually did escape.

ALEXANDER: That's correct. But by the time it was done four workers were fatally injured and several others were injured.

TERRY: I want to go back to something you mentioned. You said one officer guarding thirty inmates. That seems like a lot. How many inmates should one officer be guarding?

OFF: I don't know if they have a direct policy on the number of inmates for each officer. What we have heard from dozens of officers is sometimes there are as many as one hundred inmates per one officer and they'd be alone in the yard or in the chow hall all by themselves.

ALEXANDER: And there are cases in which officers can be left in charge of more than a hundred inmates and they can't possibly see everything that's going on. They can't see the shanks that are being made. They can't see the contraband that's being traded. And if something breaks out they're just horribly outnumbered.

TERRY: Is this the case at other prisons in North Carolina?

OFF: For the most part, they're usually the smaller prisons, the medium and minimum custody prisons, that have fewer vacancies. But at the large maximum security prisons in North Carolina you could have a thirty percent officer vacancy rate. It's pretty outrageous.

TERRY: What's behind this?

ALEXANDER: These are pretty thankless jobs in North Carolina. Though the work is dangerous, the pay is low, the hours can be extremely long. They work 12 hour shifts and they're often asked to work a lot of overtime because they're so short-handed and a lot of the officers we talked to said that they didn't believe their supervisors really had their backs. East Carolina University recently surveyed more than 1,000 prison officers in North Carolina and 39 percent of them wanted to quit.

TERRY: You mentioned low paid. Do you have an actual number?

OFF: For maximum security prison, it’s around $38,000 average and that's around $8,000 less than the national average.

TERRY: If it were to be increased that would need approval from lawmakers first?

ALEXANDER: That's right. Lawmakers have been increasing pay since 2015 and so pay has increased about 20 percent for officers in maximum security prisons. But we still lag well behind the national average now. Legislative leaders are saying it's worth taking another look to see if they need to increase pay further.

TERRY: Are inmates aware that there is a shortage?

OFF: They are definitely. We've talked to hundreds of inmates, corresponded with them and they all say, “We know when there is a staff shortage. We know when they're working long overtime hours, when they're tired. We know when the officers have not been trained.” I've had inmates tell me that I have nothing to do but sit and watch these guys. I know their schedule better than they know it sometimes.

TERRY: Is the Department of Public Safety doing anything about that?

ALEXANDER: They say they have greatly increased the number of officers that they hire every month. The trouble is they've been losing officers even faster than they can hire them. So they are taking a look at their staffing problems across the state.

TERRY: How are they trying to boost recruitment?

OFF: What they tell us is they're working with some of the military bases on the east coast to try to get former military to transition into these jobs. They're working with some community colleges and, I believe, even some high schools to prep officers at a young age and get them interested. But not only is it a thankless job, but a lot of these prisons are in really rural areas, so their applicant pool is pretty small.

TERRY: The two of you have done extensive reporting on corruption in the North Carolina prison system. Does that play a part in all this?

ALEXANDER: It does because that makes prisons more dangerous too. I mean, a number of the officers we talked to said they feared their coworkers even more than the inmates because their coworkers were involved with colluding with gang members inside the prison to orchestrate attacks to smuggle in contraband. These officers feel they have things to fear on all sides.

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.