Steinburg: Prison managers conceal dangers


State Rep. Bob Steinburg


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, December 17, 2017

State Rep. Bob Steinburg is blasting North Carolina's prison administrators “from the top down,” citing claims from correctional officers that prison managers are allowing and concealing dangerous conditions, including threats and violence from inmates.

In an interview last week, Steinburg, R-Chowan, said correctional officers have reported to him dire conditions across many of the state's 55 prisons. The correctional officers, speaking to him, he said, on the condition of anonymity, have also claimed that administrators often do nothing about the problems they report, and threaten their jobs if they report those problems beyond the prison walls.

Steinburg also claimed prison management often operates as a “closed circle” or “secret society,” allowing them to foil oversight and accountability from system officials. Steinburg made similar claims in an op-ed he wrote that was published in the North State Journal on Dec. 5.

As Steinburg stated in that column, he's calling on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety — to which he was recently appointed as an advisory member — to launch an investigation of the state prison system that includes subpoena power.

Steinburg and other lawmakers are focused on the prison system following a violent attack on prison staff by inmates attempting to escape from Pasquotank Correctional Institution in October. The attack resulted in the deaths of two correctional officers, a prison sewing plant manager and a maintenance worker.

Four inmates were subsequently indicted on first-degree murder charges in the prison employees’ deaths, and District Attorney Andrew Womble has announced he’ll seek the death penalty if the inmates are convicted of capital murder charges.

According to Steinburg, correctional officers have made detailed allegations during his conversations with them. One is that prison administrators have allowed inmates to use sheets to cover up security cameras, creating “tent cities” where they can assault weaker inmates with impunity.

The correctional officers’ other allegations include:

* That prison employees caught a female assistant supervisor having sex with an inmate, and nothing happened when they reported the incident.

* That administrators dress down correctional officers in front of inmates, undermining their authority and inmates' respect for them.

* That correctional officers lack ways to discipline inmates, including restricted use of solitary confinement.

* That correctional officers are often told not to write up incidents; officers allege that reducing costs seems to take priority over discipline.

* That administrators side with inmates over officers; Steinburg said one officer told him an inmate claimed to have the personal cellphone number for N.C. Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter and would report the officer to Lassiter.

* That prison officials knew there were inmates with violent records working in facilities operated by N.C. Correction Enterprises, the prison-run entity that manufactures safety vests, metal signs, furniture and other products. Steinburg said prison officials allow questionable inmates to work at Correction Enterprises to maintain production and profits.

Commenting on the latter charge, Steinburg also claims Pasquotank Correctional Institution Administrator Felix Taylor knew inmates convicted of violent crimes were working at PCI’s sewing plant. The plant’s supervisor, Veronica Darden, and the correctional officer assigned to provide security at the plant, Justin Smith, were two of the four prison staffers killed during the failed inmate escape.

Steinburg also claimed that some 30 prisons, including Hyde Correctional Institution, failed to file mandatory “Daily Institutional Reports” in early November. Those reports keep system officials up to date on prison occupancy and other vital statistics.

“If they're lax on this, you can imagine what other protocols they're lax on,” Steinburg said.

Steinburg said the officers he’s spoken to have not made “vengeful” comments or demanded certain prison officials be fired. They're also not seeking raises, he said. They're more concerned about a lack of staffing and safety conditions in the prisons, he said.

“So many would get out tomorrow if they could,” Steinburg said, noting prisons used to be considered a great source of employment in northeastern North Carolina's poor, rural counties.

Asked about Steinburg's allegations, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pamela Walker referred to a Dec. 7 press release from the N.C. Division of Corrections detailing the steps the division has already taken to improve prison safety and oversight.

In the release, Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks noted DPS has taken the following actions:

* Permanently shut down the sewing plant at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, and suspended the operations at the Lanesboro Correctional Institution metal plant and the Caledonia Institution cannery, pending safety and security reviews.

* Removed more than 250 inmates with “violent offender profiles” from work assignments under Correction Enterprises;

* Made inmates convicted of violent crimes against law enforcement or other government officials permanently ineligible for work assignments that give them access to “cutting and/or impact tools”;

* Asked the National Institute of Corrections, which is based in Washington, D.C., to independently review operations at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. The NIC was also asked to review Correction Enterprises’ safety protocols, including staffing patterns and inmate worker placement assessments. The NIC visited PCI in November and is expected to provide a report with its recommendations this month. 

Hooks also noted that in June, he asked the Governor’s Crime Commission to coordinate a study identifying the best practices in use across the country as a way to improve safety and security in North Carolina’s prisons. The study was supposed to focus on:

* Hiring practices for correctional officers, including screening of candidates;

* Training of correctional officers and all prison staff;

* Prison staffing;

* Security procedures to interdict contraband; and

* Measures to detect and address staff misconduct.

Asked about Steinburg’s allegations, other area lawmakers expressed some skepticism about them, but shared the goal of prison reform.

“From the information I have, that's not correct,” Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, said of claims about a “secret society” of management and problems with prison oversight. She noted that Hooks is working on an internal audit of prisons and their programs and security levels, and she awaits those findings.

Asked how confident she was in prison administrators, Smith said she wasn't familiar with Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Nor did she express concerns with the management of Bertie Correctional Institution, which is in her district.

Instead, she described her concern with Bertie as one of under-staffing, which is believed to be a factor in the murder of Sgt. Meggan Callahan earlier this year. An inmate beat Callahan, an Edenton resident, to death with a fire extinguisher.

Smith also said she believes Hooks and Lassiter have shown strong management so far in initiating prison reforms.

State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, wrote in an email he had read Steinburg's column. He said he couldn't confirm its claims, but agreed the prison system needs investigating.

“I've heard some of these horror stories he's speaking of, but you have not heard them directly from employees of the prison system,” Hunter said. However, he continued, “I agree with Rep. Steinburg that we need a system-wide investigation and I believe it should start with upper management and work its way down.”

Administrators should be held accountable if they’re not protecting employees or have committed crimes, he said.

Hunter also said he's concerned that prisons are not only under-staffed and officers under-paid, but that there's “inadequate training for guards” and a “lack of security if riots and attempted (prison) breaks occur.”

Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, did not respond to a request for comment.

A reporter also reached out to the three co-chairs of the General Assembly's Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety. They either could not be reached or declined comment. State Sen. Shirley Randleman, R-Wilkes, said in an email that the committee is awaiting a report from the Department of Public Safety. The other co-chairs are Reps. Ted Davis Jr., R-New Hanover, and James Boles Jr., R-Moore.

Steinburg has already announced that he doesn’t plan to seek re-election to his seat in the 1st House District next year. He instead plans to run in the newly drawn 1st Senate District. 

Clark Twiddy, a Dare County Republican who also plans to run for the 1st Senate District seat, strongly agrees that prison reform is needed, but was skeptical of Steinburg's claims about prison management.

“I think that's probably a curious choice of words,” Twiddy said, referring to Steinburg’s use of the term “secret society.” He also said he believes that prison administrators, like other government employees, are generally good, hard-working people.

“I am confident that our prisons are generally well-managed,” Twiddy said.