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Prison panel: Restore exams, boost worker pay

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, June 14, 2019

State Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, and other state senators are making eight recommendations to make prisons safer for both inmates and staff, but when and how they're implemented is unclear.

The senators, acting as the Select Committee on Prison Reform, unveiled the recommendations to the Senate's leadership on Monday.

In recent interviews, Steinburg, who chairs the panel, has already discussed several of the committee's recommendations, including a bill to restore the divisions of adult corrections and juvenile justice as Cabinet-level agencies separate from the Department of Public Safety. He has also called for boosting correctional officer recruitment and retention, including through raises and bonuses.

The committee's formal recommendations provide more detail on those steps, and advocate new ones.

In one recommendation, the committee advocates reinstating promotional exams for promoting correctional staff. That appears to be at odds with a decision by Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter, who announced in February he was eliminating exams for sergeants and lieutenants.

While sergeants are key front-line supervisors, and lieutenants help supervise major facilities, Lassiter argued the written exams are unnecessary and eliminating them wouldn't relax standards for promotions. A department spokesman also noted captains haven't had to take exams since the 1990s.

The committee's report also details how it thinks correctional officer pay and benefits should be handled.

It calls for “equitable raises for all staff,” not just officers, plus differentiated salary increases to address salary compression. Salary compression refers to pay being too similar between lower- and higher-level positions, which can make it harder to find and keep qualified mid- and upper-level staff.

The committee also calls for supplemental pay for staff working at facilities with high vacancies, and referral and retention bonuses.

It also calls for educational assistance, “including free tuition in the community college system.”

The Senate's proposed budget for 2019-20 does include some of those recommendations, namely an extra $2,500 to $7,500 for correctional officers — on top of raises for all state employees — plus a raise if they work at prisons where at least 20 percent of the positions are vacant, according to a published report.

In a separate recommendation, the committee also recommends increasing the death benefit for correctional employees — a broader term than just correctional officers — killed in the line of duty. The committee suggests the state consider purchasing an insurance policy to cover the larger benefit.

Notably, that recommendation follows Steinburg's legislative proposal both this year and last year to boost death benefits for correctional employees.

The committee's other recommendations include: changing some staff from 12- to 8-hour shifts, making it easier for employees to get mental health services, continuing efforts to improve employee training, and providing better mental health services for inmates, including reducing use of solitary confinement.

The report notes its recommendations follow meetings this year with various experts and correctional employees, including Gary Mohr, president of the American Correctional Association; Samuel Adams, a correctional officer III; and Gary Junker, the director of behavorial health services for the Department of Public Safety.

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