North Carolina’s prison population is exceeding projections for 2024, warned the Secretary of the Department of Adult Correction during a meeting with the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety.

With roughly 31,642 inmates currently in the Department of Adult Correction’s prison system, the current population total is now at levels previously not expected until 2027, according to prior projections forecasted by the NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. Year-end data from the past three year period show an increase from 29,629 in 2021 to 31,339 in 2023. 

Todd Ishee, Secretary of the Department of Adult Correction, briefed the committee on prison staffing, safety, and agency independence last week. He mentioned several growing challenges, such as an aging workforce population, future leadership turnover, technology issues (like AI and drones,) and the growing prison population.

“We are at about 2027 numbers currently, so population is higher than what was projected,” Ishee said. “We’re navigating that, but as that continues to grow, it just puts the strain on our correctional officers.”

Corrections has struggled with staffing issues in recent years. They’ve made several efforts to draw in new employees while retaining current employees through a $1.2 million investment to promote recruiting efforts on billboards, gas stations, TV, and job search engines. They have also invested more than $84 million in salary increases for staff in 2023. 

Beyond staffing issues, the department is adjusting practices to comply with new rules determined by the US Department of Justice. President Biden’s Department of Justice (DOJ) recently determined denial of medication for opioid use disorders violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes incarcerated populations. This means North Carolina corrections officers are required to provide treatment services for offenders suffering with opioid use disorders from either illegal opioids (heroin) or prescription opioids (oxycodone), which encompasses 5% of total offenders.

“About 1,700 of our offenders currently have been diagnosed.” said Ishee. “300 have been enrolled in our pilot program, and we are now expanding that pilot into a much more robust program so that we stay in compliance with with ADA guidelines.”

Rep. A. Reece Pyrtle, Jr., R-Rockingham, questioned if the federal government is providing support to prisons to adjust to the new requirement. Ishee said Corrections is searching for grants to assist with the new change, but they are relying on their own funds for now. 

“Some of this currently is coming out of our existing budget,” Ishee responded. “We do have some grant possibilities, but it’s relatively new. The ruling – or the information – is relatively new. So we’re going to continue to shake the bushes as hard as we can to find federal funding to help support that.”

To further comply with the DOJ, Corrections will expand the MOUD program to additional facilities, expand the program to offenders with sentences less than 90 days, and provide Narcan to all offenders upon release.

The growing use of drones is something else Ishee told lawmakers he was concerned about. Officials have worked to install netting at three facilities in North Carolina in an effort to reduce access to illegal contraband. While officials have seen a 70% reduction in the introduction of contraband, they are now faced with illegally fly drone flights over the prison fences and netting to drop off illegal contraband. Ishee says they are currently working to figure out how to keep drones out of their secure airspace.