By Taylor Knopf
The North Carolina prison system has been under heightened scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic after outbreaks of the virus occurred in several facilities across the state.
Five inmates and one prison nurse have died from the virus. Hundreds have been infected. Inmates were being moved freely between facilities with outbreaks and those without. The reports from legal advocates and inmates about conditions inside have not always aligned with the narrative coming from the Department of Public Safety.
And DPS refused to test the majority of inmates until pressured to do so by a court judge in mid-June.
Though the flaws of the state prison system are in the public eye right now, these issues did not occur in a vacuum. The prison system has struggled under the weight of staffing troubles, budget cuts, management changes and a surge of mental health patients for more than a decade.
Vacancy rates and turnover
Before Jimmy Davis became the president of the State Employees Association of NC (SEANC), he worked as a corrections and probation officer. And he remembers feeling well compensated for those challenging jobs.
“We had that dedication to our jobs, but we also back then had the support and backing to do our jobs,” Davis said in a News & Observer report.
He continued by saying that officers today don’t feel that same support. The starting salary for a prison officer is between $33,000 and $36,000, according to SEANC. And pay percentage increases for state employees have decreased year after year since the mid-1980s.
“I’ve talked to a lot of officers who say they just don’t feel like they’re valued that much. And they may get a job there and work there for a while, but they’re looking for something else because they don’t feel really respected and valued and they’re not being compensated very well,” said Bob Carbo, a retired psychologist of the North Carolina prison system.
Prisons have struggled to maintain a full workforce for years. Right now, prisons have a 30 percent employee vacancy rate, DPS wrote in response to a COVID-19 lawsuit.
The pandemic has only resulted in fewer corrections officers at their posts. In April, 113 employees were out due to positive COVID-19 tests. As of the first week of June, 50 were out with the virus, according to a DPS memo.
A 2018 Charlotte Observer report found that DPS paid $45 million in overtime to corrections officers and that overtime pay has increased by nearly 500 percent since 2010. That same year, DPS hired about 2,000 corrections officers and lost the same number, according to the Observer.
After five corrections officers were killed on the job in 2017, the following investigations at Bertie and Pasquotank Correctional Institutions revealed significant staffing shortages during the deadly encounters.
In a survey of prison workers, 85 percent said that understaffing is the top problem in North Carolina prisons and is directly linked to prison safety.
“We heard countless horror stories from officers about being in charge of hundreds of inmates all alone with only a can of pepper spray for self-defense,” wrote the authors of a 2019 SEANC report. “The devastating reality is that most of our facilities are ripe for violence.”
Many corrections officers told SEANC that they are overworked, tired and stressed.
“The staff is coming in and required to work many hours a month of overtime for so little pay. They walk through the doors every day and don’t know if they will be taken out in a body bag,” one officer wrote in the SEANC survey. “Why would you want to risk your life for so little money when there are jobs that pay better and are nowhere near as dangerous? I have been here 20 years, and if I didn’t have so much time invested, I would leave.”
Rethinking staffing shortages
While prisons have received some money from the state to help with staffing problems, the system as a whole has been plagued by budget stagnation going back more than a decade.
DPS and prison advocates have worked to find hiring solutions outside of simply asking the General Assembly for more money, said Kay Castillo, a lobbyist for the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
When there is extra money, politicians are more likely to spend it on other community needs, such as schools, rather than prisons, Castillo said.
The department implemented a fast-track system for hiring military veterans. Mentorship and new training programs were established. There are internship opportunities that Castillo and other advocates worked to secure in the prisons for social worker and psychologist positions, which attracted students from N.C. State and East Carolina University.
But try as they may, staffing shortages persist. Last spring, DPS reported a 22 percent vacancy rate in clinical positions and an overall average vacancy rate of 25 percent within state prisons.
After working with North Carolina prisoners for more than 30 years, Disability Rights NC Attorney Susan Pollitt said she thinks DPS and the criminal justice system need to look at prison staffing issues differently.
“We can’t keep trying to hire more officers,” she said. “I think we need to reduce the number of people we incarcerate.”
One sentence that Pollitt believes is heavily overused is “habitual felon.” “Those aren’t always used for violent crimes or crimes against people,” she said.
Habitual felon status means someone can be sentenced to anywhere from three to 19 years, depending on the nature of the underlying previous crimes. For example, someone can rack up three drug possession charges and be considered a habitual felon.
Less expertise and experience
Due to high turnover and vacancy rates, there aren’t as many people coming up through the prison system to fill the shoes of those retiring.
There used to be a number of people with 10, 15, 20 years of experience. Now those folks are fewer and further between, said Carbo, a prison psychologist who recently retired after 23 years.
Changes in prison leadership through the years may also be a factor in the low retention rates.
“When I first started in the system, there were a lot of people in upper management that had worked their way up through the ranks,” Carbo said.
“They started as officers or case managers and they work their way through the system,” he said. “So by the time they got to upper management, they had years of experience behind them, and they knew what it was like to work in the North Carolina prison system.”
Carbo said he felt like North Carolina’s prisons functioned more efficiently then because upper management was very familiar with the way the system worked. Experienced leadership led to better decision-making and good communication, he said.
More recently, Carbo said that DPS has brought new leadership in from out of state or simply rushed people up through the system who have less knowledge specific to North Carolina.
Prisons overwhelmed by mental illness
Over the past 12 years, there’s been more than a 65 percent increase in inmates diagnosed with mental illness, as well as a 60 percent increase in those with chronic illnesses, prison officials told legislators back in 2018.
More than 18 percent of offenders were being treated for mental illness in prisons last year. And 12,386 of inmates qualified for substance use disorder treatment in 2017-18. But there were only 2,000 available slots for treatment, Gary Junker, prison director of Health and Wellness, told state lawmakers during his presentation to a prison safety committee.
That same committee recommended better mental health services for inmates and prison staff. Lawmakers also emphasized the need to cut the prison’s use of solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement or “segregation” is a practice in which an inmate spends 22 to 24 hours a day alone in a cell roughly the size of a parking space. It’s often used as a disciplinary measure, and Black inmates end up in solitary at disproportionately higher rates, who are already incarcerated at higher rates.
Black inmates make up 51 percent of the total North Carolina prison population, and they make up nearly 60 percent of those held in solitary confinement, according to data provided by Disability Rights of NC.
“These numbers clearly show a racial inequity in the DPS restrictive housing population, both as compared to the total DPS population and the N.C. population,” said Disability Rights attorney Luke Woollard.
World leaders have compared the use of solitary confinement to torture. And for decades, researchers have documented the detrimental psychological effects prolonged isolation has on a person’s mental health.
State officials have sought to end or reduce the use of solitary for years — particularly for those with a mental health diagnosis — with only partial success.
Significant strides were made to reduce the practice in 2016. But the year after five prison officers were killed, the state prison system almost doubled the number of inmates with mental illness held in solitary confinement.
Now, many inmates are placed in isolation as a way to quarantine them during the COVID-19 outbreaks. Some have told legal advocates that they fear being sent to solitary for being sick. In June, Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier told prison officials that quarantine conditions cannot be punitive in nature.