By Rachel Crumpler
In the wake of the pandemic and incidences of violence in North Carolina’s prisons, advocates and state officials believe there are reforms that can improve conditions for those working in and those residing in North Carolina’s 54 prisons.
A group of 125 people gathered in Raleigh last week to discuss needed changes at a daylong conference organized by the all-volunteer prison advocacy group NC-CURE.
Much of the attention focused on the ongoing staffing crisis facing the prison system.
Department of Adult Correction Secretary Todd Ishee said about 40 percent of correctional officer positions are unfilled.
That’s an alarming rate to Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. She noted that when four staff members were killed at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina during a 2017 escape attempt, almost a third of the facility’s positions were vacant.
Watkins said that staff shortages put everybody at risk “all day, every day.” But she said she understands why people aren’t jumping at the open jobs.
“If I can get a job, which, by the way, I can at a fast food restaurant — not even managing it — and make more than I can going to work being responsible for the life and well-being and, we hope, rehabilitation of a fellow human being, we’ve got a problem,” Watkins said.
Ishee admitted that low staffing levels are an “anchor” holding the North Carolina prison system back.
The timing of the conference, “Restoration Matters: Proven Solutions for Prison Reform,” served as an important check-in on the Department of Adult Correction’s first year. On Jan.1, the Department of Adult Correction became a standalone cabinet agency, splitting from the Department of Public Safety.
But even as the department gained independence, it still faces challenges that come with overseeing more than 31,000 people incarcerated in prisons and more than 75,000 people on probation, post-release or parole in communities across North Carolina.
Focus turned to attracting workers to fill vacancies, meeting the demand for rehabilitative resources and updating solitary confinement practices.
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Attracting prison staff
Watkins said fixing the staffing crisis will take a massive investment in personnel.
The department has hired new talent acquisition experts to help dig the system out of its staffing shortage, Ishee said. Raises in the state budget may help with recruiting and retaining staff, though many people say those raises don’t go far enough to tackle vacancy problems.
Hiring correctional officers is challenging based on the scope of the work, work environment and the often poor image they have, said Brian Dawe, national director of One Voice United, a group that amplifies the lived experiences of correctional officers.
“Every day is an assault on your mental health when you go behind those walls,” said Dawe, who was once a Massachusetts state correctional officer.
“In all the years that I went behind those walls, I never got up in the morning and said, ‘I can’t wait to go to work.’ Not once, not a single day,” he said. “That is one hell of a way to have a career, and I’m not alone. The mental ravages that this takes on the incarcerated population are well-known. The mental ravages it takes on staff need to be recognized and need to be dealt with.
Bridging gaps with technology
The needs of the more than 31,000 people incarcerated across the state’s 54 prisons are impossible to meet through in-person programming. It’s even more challenging at a time of high staffing vacancies that can, at times, hinder programs and services.
The North Carolina prison system has turned to electronic tablets to help bridge the gaps, Ishee said.
Over the past few years, tablets have been distributed throughout the state’s prisons and are available to every incarcerated person. The tablets can be used to watch movies, listen to music and chat with family members — all at a cost. But everyone in the system is able to access a wide range of free educational programs on the tablets.
Hope University, the prison system’s online catalog of educational material, launched in facilities in April 2022 to enhance rehabilitation and reentry efforts. To date, thousands of educational resources are offered on a broad range of subjects, such as food preparation, anger management, parenting and math; Hope University is not an accredited academic institution.
Ishee said the Department of Adult Correction has sought to tailor content to its population’s needs. For example, he said 63 percent of the state’s incarcerated population has a problem with drug or alcohol addiction, so it was important for Hope University to include evidence-based drug and alcohol recovery programs.
“We’ve tried to create on here a very, very diverse menu of self-improvement opportunities for men and women with the hopes that everybody can find something that they’re interested in, something that motivates them, something that they relate to,” Ishee said.
More educational content will be added, he said. So far, incarcerated people have used the tablets to complete nearly 260,000 full courses, as well as more than 3.3 million learning resources like videos and reading, according to Department of Adult Correction data. As of Oct. 6, incarcerated people spent over 1.3 million hours learning through Hope University.
Ishee said the prison system is working to develop an incentive program to encourage more use of Hope University. For example, content completion could potentially translate into a free phone call or a free movie, he said.
On top of learning, Ishee said the tablets have helped to curb idleness.
“People sitting around with nothing to do is a challenge,” Ishee said. “It usually results in bad stuff. What this tablet program has done is cut that idleness category down significantly.”
Ishee noted that even people serving time in restrictive housing, also known as solitary confinement, can access Hope University.
Solitary confinement reform
Ishee reaffirmed that the North Carolina prison system is working to reform solitary confinement practices, though he provided no specifics on progress.
Brande Harris, chief deputy secretary for operations at the N.C. Department of Adult Correction, elaborated further on current practices. Harris said that about 2,500 people are held in restrictive housing, with about 500 serving sentences longer than 30 days. Some of them have self-selected to be in restrictive housing, she said.
Harris added that only 38 of the state’s 54 correctional facilities have restrictive housing.
As an alternative to restrictive housing, Harris said the prison system has shifted about 2,400 seriously mentally ill people to therapeutic diversion units — treatment-oriented housing units — and roughly 1,000 people went through another diversionary program.
Harris said a committee of people is reexamining the reasons people can be sent to restrictive housing and considering whether other sanctions could be implemented instead.
“The biggest thing that we are working on is making sure that we reserve restrictive housing for people who really need to be in restrictive housing, and not those … that we’re mad at,” Harris said.
Anthony Willis, who spent 26 years in prison until he was granted clemency and released in March 2022, said he only ever spent one time in solitary confinement. He said he learned immediately that he never wanted to go back there — to be stuck in a cell with just his thoughts, to hear the sounds of people yelling and screaming next to him.
“Just know that there’s a lot of men and women there that I think have been in there for a lot longer than they should,” Willis said. “I just got a letter from a guy who has been in there for 18 months, he says. It’s hard. When he comes out, he’s not going to be the same person he went in as. I assure you he’s going to be worse.”
Other Department of Adult Correction goals Ishee highlighted:
- To have all the state’s facilities accredited by the American Correctional Association. So far, 15 of 54 prisons have been recommended for accreditation. Six facilities are being audited for accreditation this year, and 15 more audits are scheduled for 2024, including one of agency headquarters.
- To triple the number of GED and High School Equivalency Test exams and vocational certificates incarcerated people achieve by July 1, 2024.
- To rebuild the work release program that was “virtually destroyed” during the COVID pandemic. Ishee said about 1,200 men and women currently leave prison every day to go to work and then return to the facility.
Determined to create change
NC-CURE Executive Director Sandra Hardee, who led the conference, said the interaction among stakeholders at the conference was powerful, as everyone often works in silos. She said she hopes people had their eyes opened to the mutual benefit of fostering an environment of dignity and respect — for prison staff and for those incarcerated.
“This foundational value of human dignity played out in the prisons has so many positive outcomes,” she said, referring to how treatment can create a better work and living environment.
Hardee said she is assembling a follow-up group of conference attendees who will meet to determine priorities for reform, but she’s already encouraged by the initial response to the conference.
“The wardens, as they were walking out, they said, ‘Wow, we need to make some changes. We need to do something about this.’”
The state’s top prison official also affirmed that there’s work to do.
“We’re not perfect,” Ishee said. “But we are aspiring to be the best that we can and are committed to doing that.”