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Prison chief: Better pay, tech upgrades helping make prisons safer

060618Reuben Young

Reuben Young, interim chief deputy secretary of public safety for the N.C. Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, is shown in this photo supplied by the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Better pay for staff and upgrades to technology are among the ways state officials are seeking to make prisons safer for employees, the head of North Carolina’s prison system said Tuesday during a visit to Elizabeth City.

“We are working every day to make our facilities safer. It’s a challenge for us everyday,” said Reuben Young, interim chief deputy secretary of public safety for the N.C. Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.

Young was part of a state delegation visiting Elizabeth City on behalf of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Hometown Strong initiative. Cooper unveiled the initiative in late April, announcing state officials would partner with Pasquotank and five other counties to open communication with rural communities and identify how the state could help them grow.

Prison safety has become a hot-button topic in the Albemarle over the past year in wake of five prison employees’ deaths at the hand of inmates. In October, four prison employees — Wendy Shannon, Geoffrey Howe, Justin Smith and Veronica Darden — were killed by four inmates during a failed escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. In April 2017, Meghan Callahan of Edenton was killed by an inmate at Bertie Correctional Institution.

Improving the staff-to-inmate ratio is a key part of improving prison safety, Young said.

“There is strength in numbers,” he said.

One way to improve prisons’ staffing ratio is to improve pay for staff, Young said. He was glad to see, he said, the General Assembly include money in the state budget for 4-percent raises for correctional officers and 2-percent raises for other prison staff.

“I do think that pay is important,” Young said. “I think it’s a measure of how we value people’s work.”

But that said, there is no way to ever pay correctional officers — or law enforcement officers or teachers — what they are actually worth, Young said.

He said the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice has upgraded safety packages for correctional officers, including providing batons to officers and Tasers for employees at the rank of sergeant and above.

Training for employees also is being improved, Young said. One emphasis is situational awareness training to help employees understand what is going on around them, he said.

New technology in the prisons is designed to alert administrative staff more quickly when there is a problem anywhere in the facility, Young said.

In addition, prison fence lines have been moved further back from the facility to make it more difficult for people outside the prison to get contraband inside, Young side. Local law enforcement officers also are being asked to help patrol areas near prison facilities, he said.

Recently the challenge of keeping contraband out of prison facilities has become even harder because people are using technology such as drones to get contraband to inmates, Young said. There’s also the continuing challenge posed by some employees who bring contraband into the prison, he said.

“But they are not representative of the people who work for us,” Young said, emphasizing that most employees of the state prison system — whether correctional officers or employed in other capacities — are honest and do their work with integrity.

“I have worked in state government for a long time and I don’t know if I have worked with anybody who is as hardworking and dedicated as the prisons’ staff are,” Young said.

Young said he hopes people remember that prison employees risk their lives every day they go to work.

“I would hope that in the midst of what we do every day, and the things that people read about us every day, that they understand how dangerous a job being a correctional officer or a member of a prison staff is,” Young said.

People risk that danger because they are committed to keeping their community safe, he said.

“We take that responsibility very seriously,” Young said.

Young and other state officials visited the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies Tuesday morning. The discussion on STEM education and innovative instruction at NEAAAT underscored for Young the importance of education as a way of reducing the likelihood someone will become incarcerated.

“Listening to the young people, faculty and staff, it impresses on me how we need to make more investments on the front end,” Young said. “We need to give students from every walk of life every chance they can to be successful.”

That will help keep people from coming to the facilities that he oversees, he said

“I am not looking for new business and I do not want repeat business,” Young said.

He said many of the people he sees coming into juvenile detention and the state’s prisons are people who have limited skills and limited options.

“But it’s also our responsibility to remember that these folks have to go back to the communities that they came from,” Young said.

One of the things Gov. Cooper emphasizes is preparing prisoners for re-entry into the community when they have finished serving their sentences, he said. Education and skills training is an important part of that, he said.

Young said he has a $1.6 billion budget “and I would like to see a lot of that money going to education.” The governor’s focus on education is “more than properly placed,” he said.

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