Steinburg to head prisons panel


State Rep. Bob Steinburg


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, February 15, 2019

State Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, will head a new Senate committee tasked with making prisons safer, as state officials continue their response to the slayings of five correctional employees at prisons in Bertie and Pasquotank counties in 2017.

Steinburg will chair the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety, the office of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, announced Wednesday. The announcement notes the five deaths, one at Bertie and four at Pasquotank, happened within Steinburg's district, and Steinburg has become a vocal advocate for prison reform.

“Sen. Steinburg represents a large number of correctional officers and has made prison safety his top priority,” the announcement states. Berger further notes, “It's our job as legislators to institute policies to make (state prisons) as safe as possible.”

Steinburg said Thursday he was honored to be chosen to head the committee, which he said will work on one the most important issues facing the state. There's already intense interest in the committee, and people have been visiting or contacting his office almost non-stop with ideas and concerns about prisons, he said.

Berger also appointed the other members of the committee, whom Steinburg said were also passionate about prison reform; some also have prisons in their districts, he noted.

The other appointed senators are: Danny Britt Jr., Warren Daniel, Norman Sanderson, Tom McInnis, Ralph Hise, Kathy Harrington, Jim Burgin, Joyce Waddell, Milton Fitch Jr., Floyd McKissick Jr., Terry Van Duyn, and Harper Peterson.

Steinburg said the committee will begin meeting soon, and he anticipates regular meetings over the next six to seven weeks, after which he hopes to make some initial recommendations. He said the committee will invite correctional officials, potentially including experts from other states, to answer questions and give input.

The committee's formation comes shortly after the State Employees Association of North Carolina released a report warning of dire conditions in state prisons. A shortage of correctional officers — about one in five positions are vacant, according to state numbers — is making prisons even more dangerous and stressful to work at, it warned. SEANC's report was also emphatic that correctional officer pay, which it states is well below the national average, is helping drive turnover in prison jobs.

Steinburg also expressed concerns with officers' vacancies and retention on Thursday, but stopped short of recommending raises before the committee gets to work. The committee will look at everything needed to make prisons safer, which includes but isn't limited to pay, he said.

Steinburg also said he was considering a few proposals that would have little or no immediate cost to the state. He said he believes the state's division of corrections should become its own department, separate from the Department of Public Safety.

The SEANC report also made that recommendation, claiming DPS has become too big and has too many duties.

Steinburg said the committee's meeting schedule and other information will soon be posted on the General Assembly's website. Asked if people will be able to listen to committee meetings online, he said he’s not sure yet.