As one of the killers behind North Carolina's bloodiest prison breakout attempt two years ago faces the possibility of execution, state officials are warning that conditions in dozens of lockups are as dire as they've ever been.
About a quarter of corrections officers needed to run the state's prisons aren't doing those jobs and the positions are vacant. Mandatory overtime on top of 12-hour days to fill the gaps means some guards are getting only a couple of days off a month.
Inmates — more than two-thirds of whom committed violent crimes — are seeing weakness and seizing the opportunity to attack. An average of two prison employees are assaulted every day, including a correction officer who escaped serious injury after being stabbed in the head earlier this month, State Prisons Commissioner Todd Ishee said Wednesday.
"The trends are getting worse by the year and we're at the point we need to take drastic measures," Ishee said during a legislative hearing earlier this week.
The top recommendation Wednesday of a prison reform advisory board created by Gov. Roy Cooper's administration was improving pay and benefits for corrections officers so that they are on par with outside law enforcement officers. That could make guards eligible for some disability and death benefits and allow them to retire earlier rather than their current 30 years. The advisory board also recommended that lawmakers provide annual pay increases so prison workers are encouraged to stay on their job as their experience increases.
But progress on improving pay and dangerous working conditions has proven slow despite the slayings of five prison workers in 2017, highlighted by an attempted breakout from an Elizabeth City prison in which inmates killed four people.
Outside inspectors said short-staffing and related inattention to inmates created opportunities for prisoners to attempt the escape from Pasquotank Correctional Institution.
One of the convicts accused of first-degree murder in that attempted escape was convicted this week, and a jury now is considering whether he should get a death sentence. The fatalities and a fifth earlier in 2017 at a nearby prison made that the deadliest year in history for state prison workers.
Raising starting pay for the state's nearly 7,500 corrections officers to $40,000 and allowing for earlier retirement could cost about $200 million a year initially, though that should diminish as more of the 1,800 vacant guard positions are filled and spending on forced overtime drops, said state Sen. Bob Steinburg, a Republican whose district includes Elizabeth City.
"This agency has basically been neglected for four decades. It's going to take a heavy lift to right the ship," Steinburg said. "Everybody who works behind bars, everybody is at risk. We need to recognize that risk. We need to compensate for that risk."
Legislators and Cooper this year agreed to spend nearly $4.5 million to outfit guards with stab-resistant vests and for other prison safety measures. They also approved paying correctional officers incentives for working in certain hard-to-staff or higher-security prisons.
But despite heightened efforts to recruit correctional officers, the unforgiving demands and low pay are leading more than half of those in their 20s — those who might spend their careers in their jobs — to quit within a year of being hired, Ishee told legislators Tuesday.
"We have lost more staff than we have been able to hire," he said.
To compensate for the vacant positions, the state is temporarily closing three prisons and reassigning corrections officers there to more than a dozen others, including one in Montgomery County where more than half the guard positions are vacant.
The shortage of guards also has led prisons officials to close cell blocks, taking about 2,300 beds out of use, Ishee said. That's led to about 1,000 convicted criminals being housed in county jails, he said.