NC prison chief: No 'secret society'


NC Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, December 18, 2017

North Carolina's top prison official has rejected a state lawmaker’s claims that prison administrators are a “secret society” and are not held accountable in their management of the state's 55 correctional facilities.

In an interview, N.C. Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter responded to numerous allegations that state Rep. Bob Steinburg raised in a Dec. 5 op-ed in the North State Journal and in an interview last week with The Daily Advance.

Steinburg, who said he based his claims on discussions he's had with correctional officers, is calling for a legislative investigation into the prison system following the deaths of four employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in October.

Among other claims, Steinburg alleged in his op-ed that officers had told him about “what amounts to a secret society that exists within a closed circle of management” that “protects the misdeeds of those in power.” Steinburg also told The Daily Advance that prison administrators allow inmates to block cameras with sheets to conceal assaults on other inmates.

Lassiter denied both claims.

There is no “closed circle” or “secret society,” Lassiter said, adding that he and other correctional officials have an “open-door policy” to hear any concerns or complaints from correctional employees. If people don't trust their immediate supervisor, they're welcome to go as far up the chain of command as needed, he said. Lassiter also said that he and regional directors routinely, and often without announcement, visit prisons to check their operations.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker also noted that there's also an anonymous hotline correctional officers can use to report incidents, and that those reports can trigger various inquiries — from an internal audit to a special investigation under the purview of DPS Secretary Erik Hooks.

However, in the wake of the deaths at PCI, and before then the murder of Sgt. Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution, and based on listening sessions he's participated in, Lassiter acknowledged correctional officers may feel they're not getting the resources or support they need.

“They are concerned and they have a right to feel that way,” Lassiter said.

Nevertheless, Lassiter indicated correctional officers aren't reporting these problems to him or other top correctional officials.

“We're not getting this from anywhere else of this magnitude,” Lassiter said.

He welcomed sitting down with Steinburg to discuss specific incidents. If employees don't trust prison officials, they should feel welcome to keep reporting specific incidents to Steinburg, he added.

Lassiter also addressed Steinburg's claim that prison administrators allow inmates to block cameras and create a “tent city” where they can assault other inmates with impunity. Inmates do sometimes try to block cameras, he said — though many are too high for them to reach, he said — but prison administrators and correctional officers should be immediately removing any obstructions.

Lassiter also responded to numerous other claims Steinburg raised, including:

* Administrators dressing down correctional officers in front of inmates, which, whether the officer was wrong or not, undermines their authority. Lassiter said communication is always something that can be improved, but said “we praise in public and criticize in private.”

* Correctional officers lack ways to discipline inmates, including use of solitary confinement. Lassiter said “restrictive housing,” as it's now called, is only to be used to protect correctional staff and other inmates. He also said that the numbers of inmates in restrictive housing have remained stable.

* Officers are told not to write up incidents, sometimes in order to control costs. Lassiter said not disciplining inmates is not a cost-cutting measure; it ultimately makes prisons less safe and potentially more costly to control.

* A correctional officer claiming an inmate had Lassiter's personal cell phone number and would report their conduct to Lassiter. The director of prisons denied any inmate has his cell phone number, or that prison officials would allow such inappropriate contact.

* Prison officials allowing violent inmates to work at facilities under Correction Enterprises despite violent records, and that Correction Enterprises' need to maintain production could override safety concerns. Lassiter noted correction officials have taken steps to restrict inmates with violent records from Correction Enterprises' facilities that use sharp and/or impact tools, but denied that productivity or profits were ever a factor in allowing inmate labor. Correction Enterprises is a non-profit, self-contained operation, he said.

* A claim that numerous prisons failed to file mandatory “Daily Institutional Reports” to system officials in early November. Lassiter said there were no reports called that, and he and other officials rely on other means to monitor prisons. He can look up inmate data any time via computer, he noted.