TAR HEEL VIEW: Broken state prisons demand stout response

When North Carolina prison officers weren’t gratuitously beating inmates or putting hot sauce on their testicles, they were selling them drugs, letting them carry out gang attacks or colluding with them on other crimes. And when they weren’t doing any of that, they were having sex with them on the superintendent’s desk.

Those were among the findings and credible allegations uncovered by a team of Observer investigative reporters who spent more than two years digging into corruption in the North Carolina prison system. The breadth and severity of misdeeds — by inmates, by prison officers and by supervisors — were breathtaking, and demand a dramatic response.

They were fueled partly by poor policy decisions made in the legislative and executive branches by both parties over many years. And so it falls on today’s legislative and executive branch leaders to ensure this violent, dangerous and expensive scourge is addressed. Gov. Roy Cooper, Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore all claim to treasure good government and a tough but fair justice system. Now’s their chance to prove it.

The Observer’s findings constitute one of the most consequential and systemic failures in North Carolina government in many years. This was — or is? — not one or two rogue employees; it was a culture deeply ingrained at prisons throughout the state.

Some lowlights from the series by Ames Alexander, Gavin Off and Elizabeth Leland:

▪ More than 400 employees have been fired for misconduct in prisons since 2012.

▪ Seven inmates at Central Prison won settlements after alleging that officers repeatedly committed “malicious and sadistic assaults” on them while handcuffed in hallways that weren’t monitored by surveillance cameras.

▪ More than two dozen officers have been fired since 2012 for inappropriate use of force and many more are never fired for similar actions, lawyers say.

▪ A video from inside Lanesboro Correctional Institution raises questions about whether prison officials knew about a planned attack on an inmate and allowed it to happen. One inmate died in the stabbing.

▪ Employees routinely smuggle in drugs, cellphones and other contraband. One prisoner in solitary confinement used one of those phones to orchestrate a murder plot against a prosecutor’s father.

▪ More than 65 staff members have been fired for getting too close to inmates, including many who carried on sexual affairs with prisoners. One worker had sex with an inmate, then helped him escape, authorities say.

This is a disgrace – and a danger not just to inmates and prison officials, but the public. The Observer series details some potential solutions, and policymakers should implement those right away. They include better background checks when hiring prison staff and better training and pay once they’re hired. Frisking officers for contraband and randomly drug testing officers would also help.

Besides those measures, the prison system needs strong leadership — from Cooper to Hooks to executives on down the chain — who will set high standards and accept nothing less.

The Charlotte Observer