Steinburg-led panel on prison reform begins its work
By Miles Layton
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Consistently high staff vacancy rates and the continuing challenge of retaining experienced personnel were among the topics discussed at this week’s inaugural meeting of a new Senate committee tasked with making state prisons safer.
Led by state Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, members of the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety spent most of their time Monday hearing a report on prison system finances. However, the committee also held a question-and-answer session with Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter about prison staffing and other issues.
Lassiter suggested filling correctional officer vacancies continues to be a challenge for the state prison system.
“We've looked at a host of things and done a lot of intensive research not just on neighboring states but across the country,” he said. “This is a national epidemic going on in reference to law enforcement maintaining people in this profession. We've looked at the various tools that have worked in other places and there's a list of things we like to discuss and show the committee.”
Nine state prisions — including two maximum-security facilities — had an officer vacancy rate of more than 35 percent during at least one month last year, according to a recent report in The News and Observer. That does not include positions left vacant because of leaves of absence.
Art Beeler, a retired longtime administrator with the federal Bureau of Prisons, also attended Monday’s committee meeting. He noted that the vacant officer position rate in North Carolina’s prison system may be much higher than what's reported — more than 8,000 officers — because a national standard quantifies a prison's operating capacity.
“When you look at that, you have lots more vacancies than you have on paper,” Beeler said. “Now I don't think that anybody expects you to fill all those vacancies — I certainly wouldn't — but I want you to understand that if you're looking at a national standard of how many officers you needed based on your square footage, it would be significantly higher than the vacancies that you have.”
Both internal and external reviews have noted that inadequate staffing and major security flaws contributed to the deaths of four prison workers at Pasquotank Correctional Institution during a failed inmate escape attempt in October 2017. The committee Steinburg chairs was formed partly in response to those deaths and that of a correctional sergeant at Bertie Correctional Institution in April 2017.
Stanley Drewery, a general instructor for the Department of Public Safety, told the committee he works with corrections staff pretty closely, and it’s apparent to him things have changed since the deadly attacks in 2017.
“I can say for myself from personal experience that I was complacent because nothing really ever happened as far as death (in a prison),” he said. “We always had assaults and we had serious assaults.”
But since the slayings of officers at Bertie and PCI, correctional staff are now “in fear for their lives,” Drewery said.
Addressing the retention issue, Drewery, a past president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, noted that the staff shortages at prisons didn’t happen overnight. He said salaries matter to employees who put their lives on the line every day. He said an equitable pay scale makes a difference to a captain with 15 years of experience when that officer sees how a newly hired captain is paid more.
“Something really has to be done because we are losing a lot of really good people,” he said. “As soon as they get the opportunity to retire, they are heading out the door. They would stay on if they were making the money that was promised to them.”
John Schwade, a retired prison psychologist, also told the committee that many inmates treated for mental illness need to be identified with those conditions earlier in their incarceration.
“We need to begin to get the jails to send mental health records with the inmates,” he said.
Schwade said current screenings of inmates for intellectual developmental disabilities does not meet the minimum standards of psychological testing. When inmates are first screened for mental illness, they may score higher after being retested — a result of the practice effect, he said.
“Many times they will go above the threshold being tested, so they are no longer eligible for developmental disability services or any other help that they might need,” he said.
Ardis Watkins, director of government relations for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, praised Steinburg for pushing for reforms of the state’s prison system.
“Definitely, we are hearing from the state correctional personnel that they feel like you are out there fighting for them,” she said. “I was sort of surprised (this committee was formed) because not many states are actually going in and doing what you are doing right now: taking things apart and really looking at them. It means more than you will ever know to the folks working in the system.”
Steinburg said he was pleased with the committee’s first meeting, which he said was mostly an overview of the Division of Prisons.
“We will be meeting weekly on Mondays for the next eight weeks or so to try and determine how best to improve safety in our prisons and then report those findings along with recommendations to the Senate leadership,” he said.
Salary inequities as well as the rising cost of overtime and retention of prison employees will be topics at upcoming meetings.
“Next week, we will be looking at whether corrections is best served under (the Department of Public Safety) or if it should be pulled out and be a separated from the department of public safety as it was in the recent past,” Steinburg said.