Prison officer Sierra Gravitte found herself in a bind.
She was the only officer inside a locked unit at Polk Correctional Institution, north of Durham, two years ago when she ordered an inmate into his cell. He refused.
Gravitte pulled out her radio to call for backup – but it wouldn’t work. Instead, the radio emitted a beeping noise signaling a low battery. Hearing that, the inmate approached Gravitte.
“I started backing up,” said Gravitte, 28. “And I pulled out my pepper spray and baton and said, ‘If you want to go, let’s go.’ ”
The inmate didn’t attack Gravitte. But for about 15 minutes, she said, she was trapped inside the prison block with about seven inmates – and no way to communicate with other officers.
“They could have … raped me or killed me and nobody would have known,” said Gravitte, who resigned from the prison earlier this year after four years on the job. “We need radios to work. Or people get hurt.”
In interviews with the Observer, more than a dozen current and former prison employees described a potentially life-threatening problem: The two-way radios that officers are issued often don’t work properly, leaving them without a crucial safety tool.
The disclosures – made by officers who worked at nine different prisons – come during a deadly time for North Carolina’s prison employees. Since April, five workers have died as a result of attacks inside the prisons.
In response to questions from the Observer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety said that managers have directed all prisons “to inventory and assess their radios and PA systems.”
But prison leaders say better technology has made radios more reliable, and that only 5 percent of radios now malfunction. They say they are quick to repair and replace broken radios.
“The Secretary’s Office and Prisons Administration understand that working equipment and especially working radios are critical to correctional officers and strongly encourage officers to report any issues to his/her immediate supervisor so radios can be promptly repaired or replaced,” wrote spokeswoman Pamela Walker.
The number of serious assaults on prison workers has risen sharply in recent years. As of early November, there were 69 assaults that resulted in injuries so severe that they forced staff members to miss work days, according to the state Department of Public Safety. That was 50 percent higher than the number reported in all of 2012.
Keeping officers connected with two-way radios is critical to prison safety, particularly when staffing is thin, experts and officers say. A previous Observer story showed how staff shortages in North Carolina’s prisons have climbed to dangerous levels over the past two years.
“You’re talking about situations where the ratio is 60 (inmates) to one (officer.) That radio is your lifeline,” said Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. “How on earth can you send officers into situations like these and not be able to reach them?”
The North Carolina officers interviewed said that many of the radios they were issued didn’t transmit properly, making it difficult or impossible for them to communicate with other staff members. In some prisons, they said, a shortage of working radios required a significant number of officers to go without.
Keith Price, a former prison warden in Texas, said officers need a reliable way to call for help if they’re in danger or encounter other emergencies.
“Somebody should have that officer's back,” said Price, a criminal justice professor at West Texas A&M University. “It's important that the officer has access to reinforcement.”
Alone without a radio
In interviews with the Observer, officers described how malfunctioning radios put staff members in greater danger.
Rosie Anderson, a former officer at Central Prison in Raleigh, said she was not carrying a radio when an inmate assaulted her in 2015. Anderson was the only officer inside a prison mental health unit when the inmate attacked, leaving her with a concussion and other serious injuries.
Anderson said she began the day with a radio, but the battery ran low during her shift and there were no working radios left. She was accustomed to sharing radios with others officers because there weren’t enough to go around, she said.
A former sergeant at Alexander Correctional Institution, meanwhile, said that about half the radios issued to his officers didn’t work properly.
The former sergeant, who asked not to be named to avoid retribution from inmates, said he was working in a control booth about six years ago when he saw an officer fighting with an inmate. The officer tried to call for help, but his radio didn’t work. Fortunately, the sergeant saw what was happening and summoned backup.
“Communication is key in a place like that, particularly when you’re dealing with malicious convicts,” he said.
Prison officials in some other states say they take precautions to ensure officers remain in radio contact. In Pennsylvania and Texas, for instance, checks are conducted each day to ensure radios are functioning properly, spokespeople for those prison systems said.
In Pennsylvania, “additional backup safeguards are in place, including the issuance of personal body alarms and whistles,” according to prison spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.
North Carolina prison leaders say they are exploring whether to equip officers with body alarms and other safety equipment.
“The safety of employees, visitors and inmates are Secretary Hooks’ top priorities, and under his leadership the Department of Public Safety has and will continue to implement actions to make prisons safer,” Walker wrote.
‘A sticky situation’
Marcus Mercer, a former officer at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, learned firsthand how crucial radios can be.
In December 2015, an inmate attacked Mercer from behind. The assault knocked Mercer to the floor, where he was punched several more times. A call went out over the radio and, within seconds, a nearby officer rushed into the block and subdued the inmate.
Mercer, 42, suffered a concussion. But the assault could have been worse if the responding officer’s radio had not worked, he said.
That was often the case at Lanesboro, a maximum-security prison southeast of Charlotte, Mercer said. Roughly three days out of five, he said, the radio he was assigned didn’t work properly.
“The equipment was garbage,” said Mercer, who resigned from the prison last year after inmates stabbed him in the cheek with a homemade knife and made threatening calls to his cellphone.
Prison leaders say they have upgraded communications equipment at Lanesboro and some other prisons.
But malfunctioning radios are still “a common occurrence” at Lanesboro, said a current officer who asked not to be named because he fears retaliation. The officer said he has complained to administrators but has gotten little sympathy.
“If you're on the yard and you have 100 inmates and all of a sudden your radio doesn't work, you're in a sticky situation,” he said.
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