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Higher officer pay still key to safer prisons

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

It’s the kind of anniversary no one wants to remember. A year ago this past Friday, four inmates at Pasquotank Correctional Institution beat to death four correctional employees in a failed escape attempt. 

The brutal murders of the four PCI staff members on Oct. 12, 2017, coming on the heels of the vicious murder of a correctional sergeant by an inmate at Bertie Correctional Institute six months before, exposed the dangers of our state’s prison system — both for prison staff and inmates. It also has spurred some much-needed reforms of the prison system in the year that has passed.

As Staff Writer Jon Hawley detailed last week, Correctional Enterprises’ sewing plant at PCI — the internal prison facility where the four inmates accused in the staff murders got their weapons — has been permanently closed. The prison system also now bars inmates with violent records — three of the four inmates accused in the PCI attack were convicted of murder — from work assignments where they could obtain cutting tools or other instruments that could be used for violence.

The prison system has also worked to better equip prison staff since the attack, buying 13,000 stab-resistant shirts that can protect against inmate shanks, and issuing batons to officers at both medium and high-security prisons like PCI. Prior to the attack, many prison staffers only carried containers of mace for protection.

Prison officials are also working to get prison workers equipped with panic alarms. The prisons will need wi-fi to make them work; cellular signals have to be blocked to keep inmates from using contraband phones. 

And because inadequate training is often a frequent complaint among correctional staff, prison officials have also mandated that no officer may guard inmates without at least four weeks of training. Earlier this year, the prison system also began training 300 experienced officers to serve as mentors to newly hired officers. There’s also been discussion about moving the training of correctional staff from community colleges directly to prison facilities.

There’s also been some apparent accountability for what happened at PCI. David Guice stepped down as corrections deputy secretary after the attack. Karen Brown was reassigned from her former job as director of Correction Enterprises. There also was direct accountability at PCI itself, as both Administrator Felix Taylor and Deputy Administrator Colbert Respass were suspended and no longer work at PCI. Former Maury Correctional Institution administrator Dennis Daniels is now in charge at PCI.

All of these and other measures have helped make PCI and other prison facilities safer. Since the Oct. 12, 2017 attack, for example, there’s been only one report of an inmate assault on a correctional officer. However, as Hawley’s reporting makes clear, the key challenge for making all prisons safer remains attracting and keeping correctional staff. 

Both internal and independent investigations at PCI revealed the prison was dangerously understaffed at the time of the attack. A prison spokesman said 75 of 266 officer positions were vacant at PCI a year ago. Even three months after the attack, 104 of the prison’s 312 full-time positions — or one in three — were vacant.

Since then, the prison’s staffing has gotten better — but it’s still not where it needs to be. A prison spokesman said 67 of the 264 correctional officer positions at PCI are now vacant.

Reducing the inmate population at PCI has helped. A year ago, there were about 700 inmates at the prison compared to 677 today. That means a little higher ratio of correctional staff to inmates than the day of the attack. However, 67 officer vacancies is still too many.

Prison officials acknowledge that finding and keeping correctional officers is difficult. Kenneth Lassiter, director of the state prison system, told The News & Observer earlier this year there were then more than 2,500 job vacancies at the state’s 55 prisons, and that the prisons were losing about 150 workers a month for every 135 to 140 hired. 

There are a number of reasons for the worker shortage, including that most state prisons are, like PCI, located in rural areas where the job applicant pool is sparse. The biggest driver for the shortage, however, is pay. Even after a 4 percent raise approved by state lawmakers this year, the average starting salary for correctional officers is only $34,759. By comparison, someone starting as a sheriff’s deputy in Camden County, with no prior law enforcement experience, is paid $32,642 annually. A starting deputy in Pasquotank who has completed basic law enforcement training is paid $34,492. A probationary police officer in Elizabeth City is paid $34,285.

The current pay for correctional officers is not enough — not for the level of danger and risk we ask of those to lock themselves in for eight-hour shifts with the state’s most violent population. It is no wonder that as many correctional officers are walking out the door as those who are walking in.        

Both of our region’s lawmakers — state Reps. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, and Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford — support increasing pay for correctional officers significantly. We’d urge them to continue to beat that drum. Prisons won’t ever be completely safe. But they can be safer, and higher-paid staff who’ve been on the job longer than six months will make them safer.

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