Gov. Roy Cooper should consider deploying the North Carolina National Guard to provide emergency help for the state’s critically understaffed prisons, two lawmakers say.
A recent Observer investigation found that staff shortages in the state's prisons have climbed to dangerous levels over the past two years, despite state efforts to attract more officers.
Experts and officers told the newspaper that better staffing might have saved the lives of the five prison employees who were fatally attacked last year.
State figures show that in April, when Sgt. Meggan Callahan was killed at Bertie Correctional Institution, roughly one of every five correctional officer positions there was vacant.
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And at Pasquotank Correctional Institution – where four employees were fatally injured during a failed escape attempt on Oct. 12 – more than 28 percent of officer positions were vacant in October – up from 17 percent three years earlier.
Just one prison officer oversaw more than 30 inmates inside Pasquotank’s sewing plant when the violence erupted.
“I think we’re just another horrible tragedy waiting to happen,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, a Democrat from Durham who recently discussed the National Guard idea with a staffer for Cooper’s office. “Understaffing has to be addressed – not in the future – but now.”
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the governor, said, “Gov. Cooper has directed state public safety officials to look at all available options for making prisons safer, and nothing is off the table. The head of the NC National Guard is a key part of the state's public safety leadership and is a part of ongoing discussions on prison safety.”
Some who favor the idea of using the National Guard point to West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice recently declared a state of emergency over staffing problems. Now, more than 80 West Virginia National Guard members help patrol the perimeters of prisons and jails, a state spokesman said.
In North Carolina, 16 percent of North Carolina prison officer positions were vacant in October, according to state figures released last year. In some prisons, the vacancy rates exceeded 30 percent.
Reuben Young, the state’s newly appointed prison chief, told the Observer Friday that he didn’t believe the staffing situation had changed much since then. But he said he’s “not sure how viable” it would be to deploy the National Guard. Those soldiers have other obligations and aren’t trained to deal with inmates, Young said. Cost could also be an issue, he said.
“While you never want to make finances an issue with regard to safety and security, the reality of it is that there are some serious cost restrictions that are involved in deploying the National Guard,” Young said.
The North Carolina National Guard, an all-volunteer force of nearly 12,000 soldiers and airmen, has never before been deployed to help staff the state’s prisons, according to Capt. Matthew Boyle, a spokesman for the Guard. And so far, they’ve not been asked to do so, Boyle said. Members work for the Guard part-time, serving 39 days a year.
It’s an explosion waiting to happen ... We have a crisis right now.
N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey, speaking about the staffing shortages in the state’s prisons.
John Schwade, a retired prison psychologist, said that he recently sent a message to Gov. Cooper, asking that he consider using the National Guard to man posts inside the most critically understaffed prisons. The officer vacancy rate at Polk Correctional Institution, where Schwade previously worked, exceeded 30 percent in October.
Schwade also relayed his concerns in a letter to Rep. Morey and two other lawmakers Thursday, calling the current situation inside the prisons “a severe threat to public safety.”
Morey said she found Schwade’s letter “alarming,” and that she believes the state cannot afford to wait for the legislature to fix the staffing problem.
“It’s an explosion waiting to happen,” she said. “...We have a crisis right now.”
‘A ring of security’
Rep. Bob Steinburg, who also received Schwade’s email, said he too would like the governor to consider calling on the National Guard. The guard, he said, could staff areas of the prison where they would have little interaction with inmates, thereby freeing up other correctional officers.
He called their possible presence “a ring of security.”
“By having them there, it may give (N.C. prison leaders) time to really concentrate on recruiting by creating an environment of more security,” Steinburg said. “It would show that the governor is very serious about protecting the people inside these prisons.”
Wendy Callahan, the mother of the prison sergeant who was killed inside Bertie Correctional, has also suggested that lawmakers consider the idea of bringing in the National Guard.
“You can make all the procedural changes you want but until you have enough staff to protect and preserve the peace you will have more killed,” Callahan wrote in a recent Facebook post.
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