Moore, Berger vow action on state’s prisons

It was more and more horrifying to see the corruption in North Carolina’s prisons uncovered in a series by The Charlotte Observer.

Tales of guards smuggling drugs and other contraband into prisons, having partnered with inmates in crime, colluding with gang members to allow attacks on other inmates, beating inmates themselves and relationships with inmates seemed endless. They didn’t apply to all guards, of course, but The Observer’s findings could not be ignored.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Phil Berger, president pro-tem of the Senate, say they’ll have the situation reviewed by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety. And, the legislature’s leaders say, they’ll have state prison leaders turn over all the information they have about that contraband, their hiring practices and what they know about employee misconduct to that committee.

Moore said the General Assembly wants to “protect our brave corrections officers with a thorough oversight review.” Well, of course, but the inmates also have to be protected, and as The Observer found, in too many instances they were victimized, sometimes with the apparent cooperation from officers.

So Moore and Berger need to keep that aspect of any oversight review in mind as well. Prisoners don’t have many advocates, after all. And yes, they’re in prison for a reason.

It’s also true that guards and other prison officials are woefully underpaid and that the facilities themselves are habitually understaffed. If Berger and Moore want to address some of the causes of the problems, they could look at how to raise those salaries, for one thing.

For his part, Gov. Roy Cooper said through a spokesperson that he “hopes the legislature will recognize the need for fair pay and more guards.”

It’s clear as well that those who run the prisons need to screen employees more carefully, checking their backgrounds and employment histories, ensuring they are capable of dealing with the high pressure atmosphere of a prison. Working in such an atmosphere isn’t like sitting in front of a computer screen all day. Prison work of any kind demands an even psychological keel.

The Observer found too many problems, too many for state officials to write off as rare and bad coincidence, etc. It found that since 2012, at least 70 state employees have been criminally charged for offenses inside prisons, and that more than 400 others were fired for misconduct while on the job.

Furthermore, some employees told the newspaper that prisons don’t vet potential hires very well, and that once people are hired, they don’t get adequate training. Standard is a week-long orientation, followed sometime afterward by a four-week basic training course. That’s not nearly enough for complicated, dangerous work in prisons.

Sadly, the problems in hiring and training came out through those employees only after The Observer exposed violent, criminal behavior. But now ignorance is not an excuse, and by the time the legislature convenes next year, lawmakers should develop a plan for making prisons safer for all, now and in the future.