Release of prison reports benefits public, prisons


Sunday, December 31, 2017

State Rep. Bob Steinburg is right: The N.C. Department of Public Safety needs to publicly release the findings of its investigations into the deaths of five prison workers, including four at Pasquotank Correctional Institution this fall.

Otherwise, the public will never know what happened to Sgt. Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution in April and to N.C. Corrections Enterprise Manager Veronica Darden, correctional officers Justin Smith and Wendy Shannon, and correctional maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe at PCI in October. 

Moreover, without those reports the public won’t be equipped to pressure state officials to correct security lapses and hire prison staff and “help prevent something like (these deaths) from happening again,” as Steinburg recently told The Associated Press.

In an interview with the AP, DPS Secretary Eric Hooks said he’s reluctant to release a report on the probe compiled by his agency’s Office of Special Investigations into Callahan’s death, or the report on the probe into the deaths of the four PCI workers that’s still underway. Hooks said he doesn’t want to compromise security in the prison system. He said he also doesn’t want those reports to taint the upcoming murder trials of the five inmates accused of murdering the prison workers. The four inmates accused of the murders at PCI could face the death penalty.

Steinburg, R-Chowan, calls that justification for withholding the reports “weak,” and he’s right. As the AP pointed out, not releasing the death investigation reports now could mean details of the murders won’t be known for years. 

There are obviously some parts of those reports that could remain private. Inmates don’t need to know, for example, specific areas where security is thin at either the Bertie or Pasquotank prisons. It is also reasonable for Hooks to want to protect the privacy rights of inmates who weren’t involved. But absent that, we don’t see any purpose for withholding the reports other than to protect the prison system from public scrutiny. Reports that redacted some of these sensitive items could and should be released.

Releasing the reports would also help counteract some of Steinburg’s more outlandish claims about what’s actually going on in our state’s prisons.

In both a recent interview with The Daily Advance and an op-ed he published in the North State Journal, Steinburg accuses state prison officials of both deliberately allowing and concealing dangerous conditions. He accused prison management of operating as a “closed circle” and “secret society,” unaccountable for their actions or lack of action.

The lawmaker claims he’s spoken to dozens of correctional staff on the condition of anonymity who have reported unsafe conditions across the state’s 55 prisons. Among their claims, they say administrators often do nothing about the problems they report, and threaten their jobs if they try to report them beyond the prison system; officers aren’t allowed to use tools like solitary confinement more liberally to discipline inmates; and administrators often side with inmates over officers. 

Many of these complaints seem typical for prisons. Prison staff never believe they have enough authority to do what they want with inmates. It is in fact when prison staff have too much leeway over inmates that assaults and the risk of death to inmates rise. And no, their “side” of an incident isn’t always the right one just because they wear a correctional officer’s uniform. As for more use of solitary confinement, studies now show prisons should use it less as a form of punishment not more.

We’re also pretty sure there’s no “secret society”  or “closed circle” operating at the top ranks of our prison system.The bureaucracy in the Division of Prisons may be slow to react to potential problems, but it’s likely no different from most government agencies. Does it take something like the deaths of five prison staff to shake state officials from their comfort zone and take steps to make prisons safer? Yes, unfortunately, it usually does. But that doesn’t mean top prison management is deliberately blocking efforts to make prison conditions safer. 

That’s not to say none of the prison staff complaints to Steinburg are legitimate concerns. One that is a major concern was prison management’s decision to allow inmates with violent records to work in the sewing plant at PCI and at other facilities operated by N.C. Corrections Enterprises. Indeed, recognizing this as a major problem, DPS’ Hooks immediately shut down the sewing plant at PCI, removed 250 inmates with a history of violence from work assignments with Corrections Enterprises, and banned all inmates with a history of violence against law enforcement from assignments where they would use cutting tools. Going forward, prisons like PCI will need to better staff dangerous work assignments with more than two correctional personnel. This of course will take money. Reform won’t happen just by shuffling the prison system’s top management team.

In an interview with The Daily Advance, Director of Prisons Director Kenneth Lassiter denied Steinburg’s allegation that there’s a secret society at work in prison management. Even so, he acknowledged that correctional staff may feel they’re not getting the resources they need to feel protected, adding “they have a right to feel that way.” He encouraged officers to continue reporting their concerns through prison channels and to Steinburg and welcomed a sit-down with the lawmaker to discuss specific incidents.

That doesn’t sound like a man overseeing a “closed circle.” We’d urge Steinburg, who is running for the state Senate next year, to be more temperate in his rhetoric on prison reform. Making unprovable, conspiratorial claims about “secret societies” undercuts his effectiveness as an advocate on this very important subject to our region.