Nearly 500 North Carolina prison employees have been either fired for misconduct or charged with criminal offenses like smuggling drugs, weapons, and cellphones inside prisons since 2012, the Charlotte Observer reported Wednesday.
The Observer’s research is extensive and damning, covering everything from the state’s hiring of corrections officers with violent criminal histories to counselors and officers carrying on long-term sexual affairs with inmates. Former prison officers and inmates say the prevalence of corruption is largely due to the state under vetting and underpaying employees.
The state’s new prison leaders vow to change those problems. George Solomon, the state’s recently retired director of prisons, is under no illusions about the grim situation he has left for his successor, Kenneth Lassiter.
“Do I think I have corrupt staff in every prison, in every (maximum-security) prison?” Solomon told the Observer. “I would be naive to say I didn’t.”
Phillip Boney, who served as a prison officer from 2006 to 2015, wrote four letters in 2013 to state prison leaders explaining the issues and requesting action. He wrote that while a minority of the state’s 8,000 prison employees were corrupt, their actions endangered colleagues and cost taxpayers money.
“About 90 percent of the staff … are praying for the day these dirty staff members are walked out,” he wrote.
He alleged that his co-workers sold drugs, cellphones, and even weapons to inmates. He also claimed they helped orchestrate attacks on inmates and one prison leader even promoted corrupt employees.
North Carolina prisons don’t pat down prison guards when they go on duty, making it remarkably easy for some to smuggle in contraband. One former inmate, Troy Person, told the Observer that he repeatedly bought liquor, cellphones, marijuana, and other contraband from two officers and then resold it to other inmates.
“Them officers are broke,” Person said. “That’s why there are so many cellphones in prison.”
North Carolina pays its prison officers far less than the $47,000 national average with yearly salaries between $32,000 – $35,000. The entertainment scarcity in prisons allows officers to charge hugely inflated prices for what they smuggle — a monetary temptation that some find irresistible.
“It’s sad to say, a lot of times I would trust gang members before I would trust my co-workers,” Chesenna Ray, a former officer told the Observer. “There’s so much corruption. Nobody knows who to trust.”
Erik Hooks, the state’s new public safety secretary has plans for reform, however, and raising pay for officers and introducing effective background checks before making new hires is the first step.
Since his own appointment in January, Hooks has appointed Lassiter as the new director of prisons and replaced three other prison administrators, but state leaders weren’t always so open to reform. Prison leaders fired Boney for insubordination in 2015 after he sent his four letters.
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