The N.C. prison system, comprising 55 facilities and employing roughly 16,000 staff, is one of the largest agencies in the state. That might surprise some, as prisons, from the real estate they occupy, to the critical role they play in governance, are not foremost in our minds when it comes to policy.
In 2011, after years of acute fiscal pain and still dealing with the lingering malaise of the Great Recession, it was cost-cutting that leaders of the N.C. General Assembly, under Republican control for the first time in more than a century, had on their minds. Among their efforts to streamline government, the 2011 legislature voted to place the N.C. Department of Correction within a new Department of Public Safety.
Correcting a big mistake
Fast-forward to 2021, and many state lawmakers, particularly in the N.C. Senate, are working hard in biennial budget negotiations to restore the Department of Correction as a standalone agency.
Events over the last 10 years have convinced many lawmakers that it was a huge mistake; one with costs far greater, and graver, than can be captured in any fiscal note.
In April 2017 Sgt. Meggan Callahan, a 29-year-old prison guard at Bertie Correctional Institution, was brutally beaten to death by an inmate with a fire extinguisher. Later that same year, October 2017, during an attempted prison escape and riot at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, four additional corrections staff — Justin Smith, Veronica Darden, Wendy Shannon, and Geoffrey Howe — were murdered by inmates in the chaos. The two events together mark 2017 as the most tragic year in the history of the agency. Subsequent reports cited staffing shortages that degraded safety protocols and exacerbated years of festering personnel and security problems.
For Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, the tragedy hit close to home. All five slain corrections staff resided in his northeastern N.C. Senate district. He’s now leading the charge to restore corrections as an independent agency that gets direct access to the governor and direct scrutiny from the state legislature.
“These five people that were murdered were all in my district,” Steinburg told Carolina Journal. “Here I had five people in my district, in six months of the year of 2017, brutally murdered. That just hit me in a way that I can’t even describe.”
After three previous terms in the N.C. House, never before having imagined a personal focus on prison policy, the then-freshman senator embarked on a passionate mission to honor the lives of those five individuals by identifying, exposing, and fixing policies and failings that may have contributed to their deaths.
“I met with these families, had them in my home. I could see that this wasn’t just affecting the families of those individuals that were slain, but this was affecting and impacting the families of all of these folks that worked at both of these prisons, and probably prisons throughout the state, and affected these individual communities. I made a commitment to myself that I was going to keep fighting for this until it happened,” said Steinburg.
His mission became formal when Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, tapped Steinburg to chair a Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety Reform. The bipartisan, 13-member select committee heard testimony from experts, stakeholders, and rank-and-file corrections staff. In addition, Steinburg and legislative staff visited all 55 prisons in the state, soliciting input from staff of all levels, and inmates as well, while touring the bowels of North Carolina’s prison complexes.
“We went down, and we listened to the corrections officers. We listened to the inmates. We listened to the people who were on intake. We listened to the food service people. And we listened to the medical people, taking copious notes to report back to the Senate select committee,” said Steiburg. “This was in prison after prison after prison. We went through this same process. We talked with a minimum of 1,000-1,200 people, so we had a good working knowledge of what the general problems that were there were applicable to almost all the prisons.”
Career prison employees have an average lifespan of 58 years
The takeaways? A dire need for advocacy, accountability, and management reforms, amid dangerous staffing, recruitment, and retention problems contributing to a woefully low morale among the thousands of correctional staff throughout the state. After reviewing the final report, the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety Reform voted unanimously for the agency’s restoration as a separate agency, among other recommendations for reform.
Steinburg points out that corrections is the only agency within DPS that does not have a step pay plan, adding to the staffing pressures and professional stresses faced by corrections officers every day. This is one of the many reasons he believes restoring corrections’ seat at the table is vital.
“It’s all really a matter of advocacy,” said Steinburg. “Whether it’s staffing, lack of proper pay plans, the average lifespan of someone in corrections — which for those with a career in corrections is only 58 years old — what we discovered is these people are all heroes. Where other [first responders] have to face possible critical life-threatening situations every time they pull a car over, with corrections officers it’s from the minute the key is turned for them and they walk inside the prison, they are vulnerable.”
That vulnerability is part of the reason why Gary Mohr believes correctional officers are “the greatest public servants of our time,” and a primary justification for restoring standalone status as a means to affect meaningful advocacy, reforms, and accountability.
Mohr, a nationally recognized leader in corrections, was hired in August 2018 by then-Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks as a senior executive adviser on prison issues. A former director of corrections for the state of Ohio for eight years, a four-time prison warden, and then-president-elect of the American Correctional Association, Mohr advised Hooks and gave testimony to the Senate select committee on how to best approach effective prison safety reforms. Chief among his recommendations then was separation, and it remains his strong recommendation now in 2021.
“Without question corrections should be a standalone agency,” Mohr told Carolina Journal. “If you think about the fact, and these are facts, correctional staff respond to more incidents that could result in loss of life than any other first responders, they are paid less than other first responders, and they have less public respect. So the correctional staff, in my opinion, deserve to be elevated to a cabinet agency so that the concerns that exist can be appropriately heard and addressed.”
That just cannot happen, Mohr asserts, if a director of prisons is too far removed from direct access to the governor. With a staff of that size and risks that are so elevated, he believes direct access to the executive, like that he enjoyed as a member of Gov. John Kasich’s cabinet in Ohio, is vital.
“When it comes to situations that need immediacy, an immediate response, I felt I had the ability to call the governor any time, day or night, and talk to him about a concern, or talk to him about a threat,” attests Mohr. Initial outbreaks of COVID-19 among inmates and staff in prisons around North Carolina in early 2020 certainly qualify as an issue of immediacy.
While Mohr believes North Carolina, and other prison systems, handled the COVID-19 outbreak relatively well, it was despite the barriers presented by the current organizational structure. Further, the issue of access is more than one-dimensional. He says the legislature must also have access to promote accountability, and such accountability is enabled by separation into a standalone agency.
“The legislature should have scrutiny over a budget that is explicitly for corrections, so that they know how many staff are funded, they’re aware of the vacancies,” Mohr says. “The commissioner of corrections should have to get up and testify specifically in defense of his or her budget. The legislature should have the ability to question the director on policy, on expenditures, on risks they’ve heard. It should not be three layers. In North Carolina, the commissioner of corrections didn’t even report to the director of public safety. There is another chief deputy secretary [they had to go through]. I find that unconscionable.”
Courage to correct unintended consequences
Aside from the issue of separation itself, Mohr notes that there are other ways to improve the system, and some are already under way, citing the leadership of N.C. Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee, appointed in 2019 to the newly created position. Under Ishee, North Carolina has begun the process of national accreditation for every prison in the state, a distinction earned by satisfying 574 standards that the American Correctional Association has for operating large correctional institutions. Some facilities have already completed the process, with more working toward accreditation.
In addition, internal audits in which staff from one prison grade another prison against such standards are now being employed in North Carolina, and dozens of accreditation offices have been set up across the state to help ensure proper corrections policies are in place, meet standards, and that prisons are complying with them. Importantly, Mohr added, a commissioner provides visible leadership from the top to the bottom of the corrections hierarchy.
“An experienced director that can go in and observe the operations and then have access to the governor to say, ‘Hey, governor, we’ve got a problem here, I need some help,’” said Mohr. “That is the continuum that needs to be fulfilled. So national accreditation, state audit processes, and leadership visibility inside the prisons are very important.”
All of it is made exponentially easier, Steinburg maintains, by recognizing the unintended negative consequences of decisions made in 2011. Those decisions that he thinks allowed the pain points of low staff morale, insufficient pay structures, staffing shortages, lack of leadership, accountability, safety lapses, and security risks to fester for years.
The senator notes that the average lifespan of a career corrections officer is a mere 58 years old. “That’s not exactly a great recruiting tool,” he deadpans.
“We have to have the courage, and the department has to have the courage, to say, you know we tried this and it didn’t work,” Steinburg said. “But nobody wants to say that. We have to be big enough to be able to step back and say, ‘You know something, we tried something, it didn’t work, we need to fix it.'”
The budget negotiation process between the two chambers of the state legislature is ongoing.
Far from the austere considerations of 2011, when the prison system was originally placed under Public Safety, this 2021 budget conversation centers more on how best to spend revenue surpluses resulting in billions of extra dollars overflowing state coffers. Steinburg hopes that makes reform a less difficult ask.
“The ultimate price has already been paid with these five individuals that were murdered,” Steinburg laments. “Dollars and cents should not be an impediment, especially now.”